Does Canada Compare? An International Perspective on Blood Alcohol Laws

To compare blood alcohol concentration (BAC) laws internationally, one must consider more than simply the BAC level alone. There are many different factors involved in determining whether Canada’s BAC laws are in line with other countries. On the surface, it may seem like Canada, with its 0.08 BAC, is lagging behind other countries. A deeper comparison shows that is not so.

In Canada it is a criminal offence to drive with a BAC of 0.08, or 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. A first offence brings a mandatory minimum fine of $1,000, loss of your driver’s licence for at least one year – and a criminal record for the rest of your life. Moreover, the maximum term of imprisonment for a summary offence is up to 18 months, or up to five years for an indictable offence.

The Canada Safety Council (CSC) commissioned a 2009 update to the 2002 study, called Canada’s Blood Alcohol Laws – an International Perspective. The study compared Canadian law on BAC levels when operating a motor vehicle to the laws of 20 other comparable countries: the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Norway and 15 members of the European Union. It itemized the 51 American jurisdictions and eight Australian jurisdictions, thus comparing Canada to a total of 77 jurisdictions.

The updated study, with its detailed comparison of sanctions, shows Canada’s blood alcohol law is very strict at the 0.08 level, and our administrative approach for lower-BAC drivers is in line with most other countries. In Canada, since focus is most commonly placed on the Criminal Code level of 0.08, it is often overlooked that it is in fact unlawful to drive with a BAC level of 0.05 and above in the majority of provinces and territories.

Drivers who have lower BAC are dealt with under provincial and territorial traffic acts. Nine of the 13 provinces and territories impose administrative licence suspensions on drinking drivers at 0.05 or lower. Most have a zero BAC level for new drivers. The licence suspension period has gone up in the last few years. The shortest period is now 24 hours.

Advocates of imposing criminal law at 0.05 (where traffic acts currently apply) argue that most other countries have moved to that level. They claim that by leaving its criminal limit at 0.08 Canada is lagging behind an international trend. A deeper comparison proves that this is not the case.

The study found that Canada treats offenders at the 0.08 level firmly in comparison to other jurisdictions. A 2006 update concluded that if we were to treat drivers with a 0.05 BAC in the same way, by changing the Criminal Code, we could have harsher penalties for blood alcohol offences than any other comparative country.

“This conclusion is even more valid today than it was in 2006 given the increases in the fine and the term of imprisonment,” says Ottawa lawyer John Helis, author of the CSC 2009 update to the study. Of the 20 countries examined, significantly more have a BAC level of 0.05 or lower than those at 0.08. Since the 2006 report, Luxembourg lowered its level from 0.08 to 0.05.

“While the 0.05 level may represent an international trend for some form of administrative sanctions, it is certainly not the standard for imposing criminal sanctions,” Helis explains. Thus, only seven jurisdictions have been found to have adopted a criminal response to the operation of a motor vehicle with a BAC of 0.05 for a first offence, and maximum prison sentences ranging from one to six months. Whereas, Canada’s maximum prison sentence is five years for a BAC of 0.08.

Canada imposes a driving prohibition of one to three years, which is longer than any other jurisdiction that has adopted a 0.08 BAC. Canada’s one-year minimum is more reflective of the maximum disqualification period in other jurisdictions. Canada is making progress in its fight against impaired driving. In 2006, road crashes involving a driver who had been drinking took 907 lives, down 30 per cent from 1995, when 1,296 motor vehicle deaths involved a drinking driver. Over-use of the Criminal Code could compromise the effectiveness of measures that have contributed to this progress.

Did you Know?

  • Sweden is among the strictest in the world for BAC, having criminal sanctions at 0.02 per cent per milligram, but only a maximum of six months in jail at this level.
  • Canada shares with Germany the longest maximum prison sentence – five years. After that, the longest maximum is two years in some American jurisdictions. At 0.10, Sweden has a maximum one-year prison sentence.
  • Incarceration for a first offence in Denmark is only possible with a BAC of 0.20, and in Germany and Greece it is only possible with a BAC of 0.11.
  • A prison term is only possible in Germany at 0.05 if the offender drove dangerously or caused an accident.
  • European countries have typically lower fines than Canada (at $1,000) with a BAC of 0.08, with the exception of France, which imposes a fine of €4,500 (about $7,200).
  • In Denmark and Finland, fines for a first time offence are calculated based on the offender’s average monthly income.
  • As of May 1, 2009, Ontario imposed a three-day licence suspension with a BAC of 0.05 upon first offence.
  • The few jurisdictions that impose criminal sanctions at the 0.05 BAC level generally impose penalties that are less strict than those that do so at the 0.08 level.

Related Documents

Canada’s Blood Alcohol Laws – an International Perspective (English)