Canada’s roads stretch over one million kilometres, including the Trans-Canada Highway, the fourth longest road in the world. Roads in Canada are maintained to a high standard by provincial governments and there are few toll roads (most of which are found on a handful of bridges and near the US border).
Given the size and geography of the country, the road network is much denser in the south of the country and around major cities like Toronto. Outside of major cities, you’ll often be the only vehicle on the road for miles.
Here are the main types of roads in Canada:
Canada’s local roads are intended to provide access to private property and are usually found in suburban and rural areas. They have low traffic speed and must have at least one sidewalk.
Collector roads are designed for connecting traffic to larger arteries. They will be signalled at intersections with arterial roads and will have sidewalks on both sides of the road.
This kind of road is principally designed for facilitating traffic movement, although will provide access to some types of property. They do not have ‘stop’ signs – instead, intersections are controlled by traffic lights. They also have sidewalks on both sides of the thoroughfare.
These roads are primarily designed for traffic movement and are subject to access controls (meaning you’ll have to wait at light or at a line before you can enter the flow). The speed limit is normally 50-60km/h and there are usually sidewalks on both sides of the road.
Expressways are the equivalent of British motorways. The speed limit is typically 80-100 km/h. There is no property access and cyclists and pedestrians are prohibited from entering them.
Canada is relatively easy to navigate by car. Canadians are well known for their politeness and this extends to their driving habits too. They have a strong focus on safety and defensive driving, meaning you’re unlikely to encounter much erratic behaviour.
You’ll be likely to end up hiring an automatic transmission car in Canada rather than the kind of manual vehicle you’d be used to in Europe (that said, it’s possible to find manual cars, and you might prefer one if driving in winter). However, most drivers get used to automatic driving without too much trouble and it can make life easier when you’re travelling long distances.
If you’re planning on road-tripping across Canada, do not underestimate the distances involved. Make sure you’ve planned a sensible route, have enough fuel, food and water. If you’re driving in winter, you’ll want to take even more precautions in case of a breakdown (more on winter driving below). It’s also important to remember that wild animals like moose and elks wandering onto the road is a real issue in Canada, especially at night - so drive cautiously.
Canada’s driving rules are similar to what you’re used to in the UK. That said, Canadian cities follow a grid system – like much of Northern American – and roundabouts are much less common than they are in the UK. This means you’ll have to get accustomed to a more ‘stop-start’ kind of driving.
Like most of the world, Canadians drive on the right-hand side of the road. If this is your first time driving on the right, spend some time getting used to it on smaller side roads.
There are some differences in how the right of way works in Canada. Firstly, lights at intersections: when you’re at a red light at an intersection, you are allowed to turn right – but must proceed with caution and watch out for pedestrians (this is true for everywhere except Montreal). There are also two types of green light in Canada: a steady green light means the same as in the UK, whereas a flashing green light means you have the right of way to turn left.
If you come to a four-way crossroad or an intersection without traffic lights – which is common in rural areas – it is the driver to the right who has the right of way.
Speed limits in Canada are measured in kilometres per hour, rather than miles per hour. Speed limits signs are posted on all roads (although not always as frequently or clearly as in the UK).
In urban areas away from major arteries, the speed limit will normally be 50km/h unless otherwise stated
For rural roads outside of towns, the speed limit will be 60-80 km/h
The maximum speed limit on highways will be 80-100 km/h (and the minimum limit is 60 km/h)
Canada is famous for its cold, snowy winters – it can drop as low as -40°C in some parts of the country. So, if you plan on driving in Canada in winter, it’s essential to take extra precautions:
Ensure your hire car has chains or winter tyres (in some provinces this is a legal requirement)
Bring paper maps in case your GPS fails, snow scrapers and a torch with spare batteries
Dress appropriately – warm clothes are essential
Bring a sleeping bag just in case you do have a breakdown – having a warm sleeping bag could be a lifesaver
Bring a heater – many Canadians carry heaters in their cars in winter to make driving more bearable
Plan your trip and tell people where you are going
Drive very defensively, watching out for black ice and other hazards and avoid driving at night
Canadian driving law is heavily focused on safety, so bear in mind that:
There are stiff penalties for driving under the influence. The limit is 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood – which is the same as in the UK
Safety belts must be worn at all times
You cannot use a mobile phone while driving, but you can use a hands-free system
As noted above, winter is the most difficult time for driving in Canada and you should take precautions for snow, ice and glare.
That said, most tourists will likely to visit Canada during the warmer months. While summer is much safer for driving, you should still take precautions:
Prepare for the heat
If you’ll be driving very long distances, always stock up on bottled water since Canada can get very hot in the height of summer.
Food and fuel
Make sure you have snacks and spare fuel for long legs of your journey.
Thunderstorms can build up and torrential rain may be a hazard for visibility and control.
Falling asleep at the wheel
Falling asleep at the wheel is a risk everywhere, but this risk is heightened when driving on long, empty and straight roads common in Canada.
Watch out for wild animals like moose, elk or even bears crossing the road.
If you do get into any trouble while driving in Canada, check if anyone is injured. If so, call the emergency services on 911. Otherwise, you should immediately get in touch with your car rental company, who will advise you on what to do next.
While driving in Canada is not so different to driving in the UK, it’s worth preparing for some of the country’s other idiosyncrasies. These include:
Brushing up on your French
In Quebec, many road signs are only be written in French.
Whenever a yellow school bus stops in Canada and flashes its red lights, all traffic must stop – in either direction.
These must be used for any passenger weighing less than 20kg.
In Novia Scotia you must always have your headlights turned on, even during the day.
Canada offers some of the most dramatic and jaw-dropping driving opportunities in the world. By making sure you take sensible precautions and are familiar with the slight differences between Canadian and UK driving laws, you’ll be able to enjoy its wonders without a hitch.
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