ICBC needs to clarify requirements for foreign driver’s licences

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An example of a foreign driver’s licence that’s valid in British Columbia. (CBC. April 24, 2014)


​There are often times when the law says one thing while police officers think another. And one of the more common examples in British Columbia would be the enforcement of the driving privileges of foreigners studying in BC.

BC’s Motor Vehicle Act allows exemptions for those who carry a valid driver’s licence from their home country, and who are also attending a valid educational institution. As long as that criteria is met, the only requirement is that those who hold foreign licences produce their licence if a police officer demands it.


That’s it. Even if the licence is in a foreign language, the law does not require the driver to produce a translated copy of its contents, or to do anything else to verify to the officer the authenticity of the driver’s licence.

You can imagine a number of issues.
How does the officer even know the piece of identification is a driver’s licence? How would the officer know what restrictions accompany the licence, for example whether the foreign jurisdiction has something similar to BC’s graduated licensing program that sets restrictions for Novice and Learner drivers?

In some cases, the officer might not even be able to tell if the person on the foreign driver’s licence is the same person they pulled over, particularly if the driver’s name isn’t in English.

It’s a huge oversight by the law to not establish a requirement that those who hold foreign licences must hold a translation or a certificate to prove their ability to drive.

So it’s hardly surprising that police officers may err on the side of caution and issue a ticket or a driving prohibition even though no laws were violated.

This lack of clarity has significant consequences on the foreign students who are otherwise following the law to the letter. In fact, one group of foreign students has testified that among Saudi Arabian students in Victoria alone, this driver’s licensing issue comes up four to five times per year.

Oddly enough, three of these students ended up in front of the same BC Provincial Court judge, all because of some very confused police officers.

The first case occurred in 2014.
There was a speeding-related road stop where the driver produced his Saudi Arabian driver’s licence that was valid until December 2017. The police officer seized his licence, and wouldn’t budge from his position even after an ICBC supervisor sat down with both the driver and the officer to explain the law.

When the case came to trial, the Crown lawyer argued that the foreign student (he was attending Kwantlen Polytechnic University and Camosun College at the time), was actually ordinarily resident of BC, which would mean he’s not exempt as a foreign driver with a foreign licence.

​Here’s what the legislation says:

(1.1) Subject to subsection (1.2), the following persons are exempt, for the period specified, from the requirements respecting the holding of a driver’s licence issued to him or her under this Act:

(a) a person who has a validly issued and subsisting driver’s or operator’s licence or permit issued according to the laws where he or she is ordinarily resident, for 6 months from the date he or she last entered British Columbia;


The judge determined that someone would “ordinarily” be a resident in BC only if they are a permanent resident or a citizen, and in this case, the driver merely had a study permit which would have actually expired the same year he received the traffic ticket.

It was just a year later when another, very similar case arrived in this judge’s courtroom. This time, a driver was pulled over by the road safety unit. The driver (this time a business admin student at Royal Roads University) produced his Saudi Arabian licence, but the officer was not satisfied – since there were some bits of the licence not written in English.

This would all be fine, if the law requires drivers to produce certified translations.
But it doesn’t. Again, even if the driver’s licence was completely in a foreign language, the driver would technically have met the law to the letter. This certainly doesn’t help police enforce road safety, and only leads to confusion, as we’ll see when another, very similar case arrived at BC Provincial Court just months later.

This time, the facts are even more confusing. This student had an expired Saudi Arabian licence, and so he obtained a BC Driver’s Licence when he arrived in Canada. Specifically, a Learner licence. And then he also decided to get his Saudi Arabian licence renewed.

So by the time he was pulled over in January 2016, this student actually had a BC Learner licence and a valid Saudi Arabian licence. So the police gave him tickets for driving without a supervisor, outside of permitted hours and without an L sticker.

Surprisingly, the court found that it was because this student hadn’t gone to ICBC to have his BC Driver’s Licence cancelled, he was still bound by the conditions of his Learner permit. All he would have had to do was “annul” his BC licence, and he would have been driving legally.

You can only imagine how exasperated this judge was.
Three very similar cases, taking up police, Crown and court time, not to mention the disservice to people who were following the law to the best of their knowledge, and still the law was just as unclear as ever.

Here’s what he ended up saying:

“In my view, ICBC or Driver Services do a disservice to visiting students to this country by failing to clearly articulate to them in an effective way what they should be doing when driving in B.C. on foreign driver’s licence, as I have articulated on previous judgments on this issue.”

And he continues:

​“ICBC could do a great service to these visitors and to the law enforcement officers charged with enforcing the motor vehicle laws if it made clear in the law what is required of a student driving under the s. 34(1.1)(c) exemption and made clear in its public information what such a student should have at roadside when driving under that exemption.”

77 thoughts on “ICBC needs to clarify requirements for foreign driver’s licences”

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