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According to the 1949 Geneva Convention citizens of any country that signed the agreement are able to drive in any other country for up to one year with an international driving permit:

No Contracting State shall be required to extend the benefit of the provisions of this Convention to any motor vehicle or trailer, or to any driver having remained within its territory for a continuous period exceeding one year. (Article 1, paragraph 2)

...

Each Contracting State shall allow any driver admitted to its territory who fulfils the conditions which are set out in Annex 8 and who holds a valid driving permit issued to him, after he has given proof of his competence, by the competent authority of another Contracting State or subdivision thereof, or by an Association duly empowered by such authority, to drive on its roads without further examination motor vehicles of the category or categories defined in Annexes 9 and 10 for which the permit has been issued. (Article 24, paragraph 1)

The only requirement as set out in Annex 8 is...

The minimum age for driving a motor vehicle under the conditions set out in Article 24 of the Convention shall be eighteen years.

But at the same time British Columbia (which is a member state of Canada, which is a party to the convention) requires foreign drivers to exchange their licenses within three months of becoming a resident:

a person who has become ordinarily resident in British Columbia and who has a validly issued and subsisting driver’s or operator’s licence or permit issued according to the laws of the jurisdiction where he or she was most recently ordinarily resident, for 90 days after he or she became ordinarily resident in British Columbia;

Isn't there a conflict between domestic and international law in this situation? Or am I misunderstanding the 1949 Geneva Convention?

  • 1
    BC requires all drivers (even other Canadians) to get a BC driver's license within 3 months of moving to BC. So this isn't a discriminatory thing. – cHao Mar 25 '18 at 14:04
  • @cHao yes but shouldn't the convention take precedence over BC law? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Mar 25 '18 at 15:01
  • If it actually says what you believe it says. It probably doesn't, though. – cHao Mar 25 '18 at 15:48
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    Interestingly, the 1968 Vienna Convention addresses this, with a provision that a license issued by some country need not be recognized if the holder is no longer resident in that country (article 41 section 7 (b)). But Canada is not party to the Vienna Convention. – Nate Eldredge Mar 25 '18 at 19:36
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    The first quote from the Geneva Convention doesn't strictly apply; it says that the treaty doesn't require any state to recognize foreign licenses for longer than one year, not that states must recognize foreign licenses for one full year. (That said, if it allows for the period to be less than one year, then I'm not sure what the purpose of the clause is, so...) – Michael Seifert Mar 26 '18 at 18:12
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My own answer to the question is yes, but not directly. As with many other laws it would take a court ruling to definitively spell out how international agreements are applicable to a given situation. Unfortunately it doesn't seem that such a court ruling was ever produced so far:

  • Google Scholar fails to list any US court cases relevant to the Convention on Road Traffic. The only somewhat relevant case is Busby v. State in which the court rules that one cannot drive in Alaska with an IDP after having been previously restricted from driving in Alaska. The court does stress out that:

    The Convention does forbid a signatory country (or subsidiary state) from imposing or enforcing license revocations in a manner that discriminates against residents of other signatory countries. But Busby does not claim that he was the victim of such discrimination. Busby's license was revoked for conduct that would have led to license revocation if committed by an Alaska resident. (Indeed, Busby's license was revoked while he was an Alaska resident.) And Busby does not claim that he was singled out for prosecution because he was a resident of a foreign country—i.e., that the State would not have charged him with the offense of driving with a revoked license if he had still been an Alaska resident.

    This could possibly mean that the court believes that the Convention only applies to foreign residents, but its not spelled out specifically.

  • Searching for Canadian court cases likewise doesn't turn up anything useful. The only relevant case is R. v. Lawend where the person in question was trying to drive in Ontario on a foreign license after previously having had their Ontario license suspended. Here the court rules similar to the decision in Alaska in that having a foreign license does not allow one to circumvent locally imposed license restrictions.

  • Searching for UK case law doesn't turn up any relevant court cases.

  • Australian case law is likewise mute on the subject.

There is also a relevant legal opinion by the Department of State quoted in the Digest of United States practice in International Law, 2002:

Reading these provisions as a whole, we believe that the State of Georgia, consistent with the CRT,

(1) must permit an alien to drive in Georgia using a foreign driver’s license issued by a country party to the CRT only if the alien has been lawfully admitted to the United States;

(2) must permit a lawfully admitted alien to drive in Georgia using a foreign driver’s license of a CRT party only during the first year after the alien’s admission; and

(3) may, in accordance with Georgia’s residency laws, require an alien resident in Georgia to obtain a Georgia driver’s license as a condition for continued authorization to drive. By the same token, nothing in the CRT would prevent the State of Georgia from applying more liberal rules with respect to the driving privileges of aliens.

In Automated Vehicles Are Probably Legal in the United States, 2014 the author further analyses how the 1949 Geneva Convention is applicable within the United States. First, to settle the definition of "international traffic":

Nonetheless, the United States ultimately accepted that “the purpose of chapter II was to establish, in effect, an international code of minimum safety requirements. By indirection, the rules of the road set forth in the convention would apply to the pattern of domestic as well as to international traffic.

The author the meaning behind Article I of the Convention:

Article 1 states in part that no party “shall be required to extend the benefit of the provisions of this Convention to any motor vehicle or trailer, or to any driver having remained within its territory for a continuous period exceeding one year.”

This provision, on its face, indicates that the parties recognized that the treaty would benefit individuals. In no way does this recognition compel a conclusion that the Convention is self-executing, but it does suggest that the treaty is of a type that the Senate might have understood to be directly enforceable.

And finally on the issue of whether or not the treaty is "self-executing":

For these reasons, it is likely that courts will continue to treat the Geneva Convention as self-executing. Nonetheless, a court might conclude that, with respect to section II’s rules of the road, the governmental obligation is merely to “take appropriate measures” and that such an obligation is too vague to be enforced judicially.


So it seems absolutely clear that the Convention intended for participating countries to allow foreign drivers to drive abroad for up to one year. However international treaties are not self-executing by default in Canada, unlike the US:

Canada is bound by the terms of treaties that it enters into and breach thereof may give rise to international claims. However, in Canada treaties are not self-executing; they do not constitute part of the law of the land merely by virtue of their conclusion.

So even though British Columbia is violating the 1949 Geneva Convention one cannot directly rely on said international agreement to enforce their rights. But another state party could theorethically sue Canada on behalf of its citizen to request that Canada rectifies its laws with accordance to the agreement.

  • According to this PDF from the Library of Parliament, treaties are not self-executing (section 3.3.2). Also relevant, treaties do not give parliament the ability to legislate in the legislative domains of the provinces (section 4.3). – DPenner1 Apr 3 '18 at 18:33
  • @DPenner1 interesting. So does this mean Canada shouldn't have signed the Convention in the first place as they're not able to enforce it? – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 3 '18 at 18:47
  • @DPenner1 I've updated my answer – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 3 '18 at 19:48
  • Ideally, everyone cooperates in implementing and maintaining the treaty. All I can add is another reference case: Derksen v. Insurance Corp. of B.C., 1995. Paragraph 5 of the judgement shows that the international driving permit was respected in the Motor Vehicle Act 1979, but that seems to have disappeared with the current 1996 act. – DPenner1 Apr 4 '18 at 5:03
  • @DPenner1 excellent find! So essentially BC decided it can ignore international laws back in 1996... And no state cared enough to challenge them since then, unfortunately. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 4 '18 at 5:18
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Yeah, @MichaelSeifert has it right. There is no requirement that anybody recognize a license for a year. It merely says that no one will be required to recognize it for more than a year. There is no requirement that it be recognized for any certain amount of time other than, I would presume, a reasonable amount of time. Further, it doesn't seem as if the convention was intended to allow people the maximum amount of time to keep their old license once coming to BC, but rather it sounds geared toward tourism and international comity.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – feetwet Apr 1 '18 at 23:42
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What makes you think that this prevents someone from driving? They can drive on their international licence - they can also be fined for not following the BC law that requires them to take out a BC license.

That is to say, you couldn't be convicted for the driving offence of driving without a licence because you have a valid international licence. You can be convicted of the non-driving offence of failing to take out a BC licence within 3 months of becoming a resident.

  • See my update to the post. There's no penalty for "not exchanging your license" - in fact there isn't even an obligation to do so. British Columbia simply stops recognizing your license after 90 days of you becoming a resident, which is a clear violation of the international agreement. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Mar 26 '18 at 16:48
  • @JonathanReez I'm not sure it's a clear violation. The term "international traffic" is not defined very comprehensively. – phoog Apr 1 '18 at 20:45
  • @phoog the 1949 convention explains that actually: "International traffic" means any traffic which crosses at least one frontier". So at the very least Canada should allow you to drive to the US using your license for up to one year. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 1 '18 at 21:09
  • @JonathanReez it would certainly be reasonable, however, to find that a driver who takes up residence is no longer considered to be in international traffic. It would also be reasonable to find that a driver who arrived by some means other than driving was never in international traffic. The convention is silent on both questions. – phoog Apr 1 '18 at 21:18
  • @phoog I've searched both the US and the Canadian legal databases but not a single case ever came up where the person in question challenged the requirement to exchange driving licenses. Likewise no court ever questioned what "international traffic" really means. So I'm guessing the only way to find out is to break the law and then sue the BC government shrug – JonathanReez Supports Monica Apr 1 '18 at 22:07

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