Skip to Main Navigation

Traffic Safety Facts Banner

Number 221                                                                                                    May 2000

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, DC 20590




Lessons learned from other countries have facilitated the progress that has been made in impaired driving in the United States in the last decade. For example, from some of the Scandinavian countries, we have learned about alcohol policy, blood alcohol limits, and swift and sure sanctions. Australia's random breath testing efforts have influenced our own sobriety checkpoint efforts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a systematic review of information about impaired driving laws and countermeasures from countries around the world.

Countries Included

Countries included in the review were those that are more directly comparable to the United States in terms of economics and demographics, and those with which we have the most direct dealings. These were: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Czech Republic, and Russia.

Laws Included

While many different laws are relevant to impaired driving, this review focused on several of the more important laws:

  • Illegal blood alcohol content (BAC) for drivers
  • Minimum purchase age for alcohol
  • Age of driving licensure
  • Standard sanctions for first offenses
  • and multiple offenses
  • More severe sanctions for drivers
  • with higher BACs
  • Graduated licensing systems
  • Systems for the regranting of licenses

Some Major Differences and Contrasts

The review of laws indicates some of the major differences across countries and the contrasts between the United States and other countries. Major findings include:

The illegal BAC for most of the United States is higher than for any of the other countries examined. The table below shows that the BACs range from .02 to .08 in selected countries. The trend has been downward in recent years, with nine countries having reduced the illegal BAC level within the past five years or with new lower limits about to be implemented. When Belgium lowered its limit to .05 in 1994, they reported a 14 percent reduction in fatalities the following year. In 1995, France lowered its legal limit to .05 and fatal crashes were reduced by 4 percent in 1996. In the United States, the illegal BAC limit varies from .08 to .10 in the individual states.

Illegal BAC Limits by Country
Australia .05 Japan .00
Austria .05 Luxembourg .08
Belgium .05 Netherland .05
Brazil .08 New Zealand .08
Canada .08 Norway .05
Czech Rep .08 Portugal .05
Denmark .05 Russia .02
Finland .05 Spain .05
France .05 Sweden .02
Germany .05 Switzerland .08
Greece .05 United Kingdom .08
Ireland .08    
Italy .08 United States .08-.10

  • The minimum purchase age for alcohol is older in the United States than for almost all other countries examined.
  • Licensing age for most countries is some years older than the minimum purchase age for alcohol.
  • Sanctions in other countries tend to be based primarily on arrest BAC whereas most states establish penalties based on number of offenses.
  • The lowest alcohol consuming countries in the review were Brazil, Norway, and Sweden (less than five liters per capita).
  • France, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, and the Czech Republic consume more than twice that rate.

Laws Related to Youth

Many countries set a different age for consumption than for purchase of alcohol and the minimum consumption or purchase age varies from as low as 14 to a high of 21. Some countries report having no minimum age. Even in countries that have a legally established minimum purchase age, reports in some countries indicate that this law is widely ignored and that many people are unaware that any such limit exists. The United States is very unusual in having a minimum purchase age of 21.

Interestingly, most countries set a higher minimum age for obtaining a driver's license (or a minimum age equal to the drinking age), unlike the United States. In America, all states allow licensure well before drinking is permitted. The driving licensure age in other countries varies from 15 in New Zealand to 18 in Germany.

Social Attitudes about Drinking and Driving

Social attitudes about drinking and driving will have a dramatic impact on public opinion about laws, and how vigorously they will be enforced. This review found that DWI social attitudes vary tremendously from one country to the next, even within Europe. For example, French drivers drink often, but they drink small amounts at any given time, and they drive afterwards. They also support raising the BAC limit (it was recently lowered) and reject a .00 BAC level among motorists. At the same time, French drivers believe that alcohol is a frequent cause of crashes in their country.

In Finland, where drivers do not drink often, but drink a lot when they do, many drivers support a .00 BAC level for drivers. They do not drive after drinking and perceive that they have a high chance of being stopped by the police if caught driving impaired. Drivers in Finland do not believe that alcohol is a frequent cause of crashes.

The report includes details for each country of impaired driving laws, illegal BAC, sanctions, driver licensing laws, and enforcement practices. Separate chapters discuss alcohol use, laws related to youth, social attitudes about drinking and driving in Europe, and the impact of international trade agreements. There are extensive appendices.


To order a copy of the report, On DWI Laws In Other Countries(60 pages), write to the Office of Research and Traffic Records, NHTSA, NTS-31, 400 Seventh Street, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20590, or send a fax to (202) 366-7096. Patty Ellison-Potter, Ph.D., was the contract manager.

U.S. Department
of Transportation
National Highway
Traffic Safety

400 Seventh Street, S.W. NTS-31
Washington, DC 20590

Traffic Tech is a publication to disseminate
information about traffic safety programs,
including evaluations, innovative programs,
and new publications. Feel free to copy it as you wish.
If you would like to receive a copy contact:
Linda Cosgrove, Ph.D., Editor, Evaluation Staff
Traffic Safety Programs
(202) 366-2759, fax (202) 366-7096

U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
1-800-424-9153 (TTY)