Canada ’s Blood Alcohol Laws Among the Strictest in the Western World

According to a Canada Safety Council (CSC) study released April 29, Canada ’s blood alcohol law is very strict compared to most countries in the western world.

In Canada it is a criminal offence to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08, or 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. Drinking drivers at lower BACs are dealt with under provincial and territorial traffic acts.

Of the 20 comparable countries examined in the CSC study, 16 have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05 or lower while only four have a nation-wide BAC of 0.08 or higher. Advocates of imposing criminal law at 0.05 (where traffic acts currently apply) claim that by leaving its criminal limit at 0.08 Canada is lagging behind an international trend. A deeper comparison shows that is not so.

To determine whether the 0.08 BAC in Canada ’s Criminal Code is in line with other countries, CSC commissioned a 2002 study comparing Canadian laws on blood alcohol levels when operating a motor vehicle to those of 77 jurisdictions, including 51 in the U.S. and eight in Australia . The study, updated in 2006, concluded that if we were simply to reduce the Criminal Code BAC to 0.05, Canada 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 2009 update to the CSC study. The mandatory minimum fine for a first offence has increased from $600 to $1,000, and the maximum prison term for a summary conviction from six to 18 months. As well, the mandatory minimum prison term for a second and subsequent offence increased from 14 and 90 days to 30 and 120 days respectively.

“While the 0.05 level may represent an international trend for some form of administrative sanctions,” Helis explains, “it is certainly not the standard for imposing criminal sanctions.”

To determine whether or not Canada ’s approach to BAC offences is in line with other countries, Helis compares the penalties imposed at 0.08 for a first offence:

  • 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.
  • Canada ’s $1,000 mandatory minimum fine exceeds mandatory minimum fines in Australian jurisdictions, and is more representative of the maximum fine in most American jurisdictions. European countries have lower fines than Canada – except France , which imposes a fine of €4,500 (over $7,300).
  • Canada imposes a driving prohibition of one to three years, longer than in other jurisdictions that have adopted a 0.08 BAC. Canada ’s one-year minimum is more reflective of the maximum disqualification period in other jurisdictions.

“Blood alcohol laws are hard to compare internationally because there are so many factors,” says CSC president Jack Smith. “Looking at how Canada stacks up, we are tougher on drinking drivers than most of the countries in the study. You have to consider more than just the BAC level.

Smith points to Canada ’s progress in its fight against impaired driving as evidence that our approach has been effective. 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.

He says the updated study, with its detailed comparison of sanctions, shows our administrative approach for lower-BAC drivers is in line with most other countries.

Nine of the 13 provinces and territories impose administrative licence suspensions on drinking drivers at 0.05 or lower. All except Nunavut 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. As of May 1, drivers in Ontario with a BAC of 0.05 will receive a three-day licence suspension for a first offence.

These administrative licence suspensions take potentially dangerous drivers off the road as soon as they are caught, serving as a strong warning. Some provinces have licence reinstatement fees, as well as requirements for assessment and treatment in the case of repeat suspensions.

CSC advocates harmonization of provincial and territorial regulations, and recommends treating administrative licence suspensions in a similar way to other traffic violations by including demerit point penalties.