Blog by Chloe Cartwright, BSW, RSW, ABR

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Driving in Canada

Things you need to know before driving in Canada

Here’s the scenario: you’ve just landed at YYC, collected your cases, picked up your hire car and now you’re off on a great adventure.  Whooooaaaaaa!!!!  But why the heck is that guy driving straight at you??!!

Okay, okay, I’m sure most people arriving from UK, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand already know that in Canada you drive on the right hand side of the road.  Consequently you also sit on the opposite side of the car too.  Fortunately, the accelerator, brake and clutch are all in the same order, but the gear stick moves sides altogether.  I had a very bruised left arm when I first came over as I kept bashing the door to change the gear stick on my left - doh!!

Apart from driving on the right-hand side, the other notable difference is that most people drive automatic cars (they are a lot more popular in North America than elsewhere).  Never having driven with an automatic transmission before coming to Canada, it took me a little time to get used to it.  Unfortunately, I didn’t “get used to it” quick enough and drove through the garage door shortly after moving into our new house!  It set us back a hefty $1,000 but since we had only just moved over I was still converting back into English currency so £500 (three digits didn’t sound as bad as four!!).  With those two major things in mind and a few different/new driving rules, you should perhaps take sometime just to familiarize yourself with your automobile before racing off to the Rockies!

So what do you really need to know?  The main thing has got to be turning right on a red.  When you get to a set of traffic lights and have come to a complete stop, provided you are safely able to do so (I’m beginning to sound like a handbook now!), then you may turn right (unless a sign indicates otherwise).  Now sit up and pay attention - you can also turn left on a red!!  If you are on a one-way road and you’re turning into a one-way road this is permitted (if the road is clear obviously!).  But unless you intend on driving in the City then the latter is not something you need to worry about too much.  You may hear many a Canadian also mention that the “right on a red light” rule doesn’t apply in Quebec.  That was the case, but they have now harmonized with the rest of their country-fellows and unless there is a sign prohibiting you to do so (and on Montreal Island!) you’re fine.  If you’re mad enough to tour round the whole of Canada, which I guess could take several months and a lot of petrol (gas as it is known here), you now know where you stand (or should I say drive!).

Another ‘new thing’, certainly to Brits, are 3 and 4 Way Stops.  These generally pop up where the intersection is not quite busy enough to justify a traffic light.  You must come to a full stop whenever you see a STOP sign.  Pedestrians always have priority and undoubtedly there will be a crosswalk at the STOP sign, even if it is not clearly marked.  The rule here is pedestrians first, then you let the first person that arrived at the intersection to proceed and so on until it is your turn.  This takes some getting used to.  You have to pay attention when you arrive.  Were you the first person there or the third?  Are there pedestrians?  If you move forward when it isn’t your turn, you could get a few loud hoots or worse still you could cause an accident.  But what happens if two cars arrive at the same time?   General courtesy means that the vehicle to the right should proceed first.  This seems a little confusing to me as surely everyone’s right is going to be the other person?!  I simply nod my head or make a gesture (polite of course) to the other driver to let them go first.  Hopefully, I haven’t frightened the living daylights out of you.  To make this sound not quite so alarming, remember what I said initially – three and four way stops are used when the intersection is not busy!

Now the other place you will see STOP signs are on the sides of the yellow school buses (if you’ve ever watched Southparks or The Simpsons, you’ll know the type I mean).  They have a signal arm that the driver swings out from the left side of the bus to warn traffic to stop.  This coupled with RED FLASHING LIGHTS allows children to load and unload, and cross where needed.  If you’re behind a bus that stops and the sign pops out with the Red Lights flasing, you stop behind it at a safe distance.  If you’re coming towards the bus from the other direction then you stop as well.  If you don’t, the bus driver can take your license plate details down and forward them to the local police.  You can proceed when the STOP sign swings back in again and the Red Lights are no longer flashing.

As the world is becoming a much smaller place, with air travel the norm now, and people zipping off all over the place, it is recognized that signing systems for road traffic should be internationally recognized for the ease of drivers.  Unquestionably this makes driving abroad pretty straightforward, with signage in Canada very similar to that elsewhere.  Yes there are signs with mooses and bears on which I guess aren’t so popular in Brighton or Paris but you can pretty much guess what they mean.  For a full listing of road traffic signs you can always take a look at the Driver’s Handbook, which can be downloaded from

A couple of things to note are that speed signs are in kilometers and speedometers show this as their main measurement too.  When passing schools (on school days only unless stated) and when passing playground zones the speed limit is 30km.  There are normally signs up showing where these zones start and end.  In built up areas the maximum speed is 50km.  When you drive on main roads, for example: the TransCanada Highway, unless otherwise stated, the limit would be 100km.  Just remember you can and will get on the spot fines if you are flying through a school zone on a school day.  I might also add that quite a few Canadians don’t seem to think the speed rules apply to them but that’s all I’m going to say at this point for fear of upsetting my good Canadian friends!

In some parts of Canada it is now illegal to drive whilst chattering to your mates on your cell phone unless using a hands free device.  Alberta is slowly catching up with the other provinces and a bill is going through at the moment to ban such practices and make hands free devices a requirement.  I’m not going to tell you where you can and can’t use your phone whilst driving in Canada or when that bill goes through because, let’s face it, you shouldn’t be doing it anyway.  Enough said.

Some more information just to give you the heads up (and so you don’t drive around with a quizzical look on your face!).  When we first arrived in Canada we couldn’t work out why everyone drove around with their headlights on all day even when there were brilliant blue skies!  Daytime Running Lights they are called.  (DRL is a little light that is illuminated on our dashboard and it took us ages to work out what that stood for!)  In a nutshell, these are used to (and I nabbed this from Wikipedia) “increase the conspicuity of the vehicle during daylight conditions”.  Another thing that astounded us were the amount of high school kids driving themselves home from school and how big the car parks (parking lots) were beside the schools for all their vehicles.  In Alberta, you can obtain your learners permit at just 14 years of age!  Yep do a double take – that’s 14!  They MUST have a competent adult over the age of 18 in the front seat with them but I could barely do my shoelaces up or work my ZX Spectrum at the age but I guess kids now grow up a little quicker (or let’s hope they do anyways!!).

There are a great many things I could touch on under the heading Driving in Alberta.  Of course, there are rules and regulations about car seats and insurance amongst other topics.  For more information you can always take a look at which belongs to the Canadian Automobile Association.  If you want some more information on how to drive safely or about those confusing STOP signs then go to which focuses specifically on Alberta.  Car seat safety is specifically covered on, so have a gander if children are travelling with you.

Now I love living in Canada so I am not about to start upsetting all of my lovely neighbours and friends.  My motto is “When in Rome…” and all that and we wouldn’t want, or expect things to change just because “the Brits” were here – far from it.  Put it this way though, they won’t be winning any awards for being the best drivers in the world (but maybe they could win Olympic Gold for cutting corners and hacking through 3 way stops when it isn’t their turn).  Actually, I think some of them could probably do with downloading the drivers’ handbook!  What is clear to me now though, is that there is a different philosophy to driving over here with roads being bigger, cars the size of small mini-vans and some journeys over 4 hours long.  Add to that the weather conditions and lots of young drivers and you get the picture.  Just take it easy when driving in Alberta and obey the road signs.  A friend said to me when I first arrived “when you’re driving, if you think someone is going to pull out or turn suddenly, then they probably will”, bear that little pearl of wisdom in mind and you won’t go far wrong.

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