When police stop drivers for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, there may be more serious consequences than a ticket. Those potential legal problems may lead to health-threatening and life-threatening stress.
What Is DUI (Driving Under the Influence)?
Depending on the state, the charge might be DUI (driving under the influence), DWI (driving while intoxicated or impaired), or OWI (operating while intoxicated), though they don’t always mean the same thing.
Being stopped by the police is stressful in general. If there is any suspicion that the drivers have been drinking or using other intoxicants, illicit or legal, they may face additional stress in the form of:
- A substance-related offense
- Loss of driving privileges.
Usually, the substance involved is alcohol because there is a per se legal standard for alcohol intoxication—a blood alcohol content or blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher— and methods for measuring it by testing breath, blood, or urine.
This standard applies whether or not the individuals behave as if intoxicated. A positive BAC test, even if below 0.08%, can be grounds for a DUI. Some people have a lower tolerance.
Defense attorneys argue that breathalyzer and urine tests are less reliable than blood and that urine and blood tests are time-sensitive; a delayed analysis can skew the results. So can poor calibration of the device.
Even if accurate, safe BAC levels indicate how alcohol affects the overall population. Some people have a higher tolerance. Police won’t hesitate to arrest someone with a lower BAC if there is sufficient evidence they are intoxicated, but the courtesy does not extend the other way.
DUI of drugs is also illegal but is more difficult to establish. No existing roadside breath or saliva test reliably measures marijuana intoxication.
Even if there were, there is no agreed-upon level of marijuana that indicates intoxication. Blood and urine tests only establish the presence of cannabis, not whether or not it is currently causing intoxication. In 15 states, however, operating a vehicle with any detectable amount of certain drugs is a crime.
Driving while impaired due to other legal drugs, such as opioids, stimulants, and benzodiazepines, is also illegal but even harder to prove.
Law enforcement’s best bet for non-alcohol-related impairment are field sobriety tests administered by specially trained drug recognition experts (DREs) who use a 12-step protocol. There are cases where subsequent blood tests come back negative, raising questions about the reliability of DRE testimony.
How Many DUI Arrests?
In 2014, 111 million drivers—almost half of the nation’s 229 million drivers—self-reported driving while alcohol-impaired. Because these were self-reports and the stigma attached to drunk driving, the actual numbers may be higher.
Not that police catch all of them. In 2019, U.S. police arrested more than 1 million drivers for DUI, but that’s less than 1%.
Not that DUIs account for all stops. Police stop more than twice as many drivers—up to 20% of all drivers in some states—for various traffic violations. State police make more than four out of five (83%) total stops.
Field Sobriety Tests
Standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) are psychophysical tests of balance, attention, and coordination. Together, they are rated more than 90% accurate for determining intoxication by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Refusal to attempt the tests is not illegal but may not prevent arrest. Successfully passing the tests may result in nothing more than a ticket.
Field sobriety tests include
- Using the horizontal gaze nystagmus test (a test that checks if the eyes jerk when following the movement of objects).
- Walking and turning.
- Standing on one leg.
- Touching one’s nose while eyes are closed.
- Answering how many fingers the officer is holding up.
- Counting backward.
- Reciting the alphabet.
- Placing the feet together or the arms at the side and tipping the head backward.
After the field sobriety tests, police officers may attempt to administer at least one of these chemical tests:
- Breath alcohol test: Measures the amount of alcohol in exhaled breath with chemicals or infrared spectroscopy.
- Saliva test. An oral swab to detect the presence of alcohol or drugs but not intoxication.
- Blood alcohol. The most accurate alcohol test, but time-sensitive. A warrant is usually required if the driver refuses to allow it. It is more costly and time-consuming, however.
- Urine test. Not often used for DUI because it is the least accurate. It may take hours after consumption for alcohol to show up in urine. The reason employers test urine is it is inexpensive, and any trace of illegal drugs is a violation; intoxication is not an issue.
In many states, refusal to take either test violates implied consent laws and may result in a mandatory penalty up to and including a fine, jail time, and loss of driving privileges even without a DUI conviction.
There are no accurate tests for measuring or even determining intoxicating levels of marijuana, nor how long after use one remains intoxicated. As marijuana becomes increasingly legalized and decriminalized, this becomes a problem for law enforcement.
On the other hand, there is scant evidence that marijuana use leads to traffic violations or accidents. While alcohol users drive more aggressively and recklessly, believing their driving skills are better than they are, marijuana users drive more cautiously, thinking their driving skills are worse than they are.
A comprehensive yearlong NHTSA study found no significant increase in accidents or fatalities associated with marijuana use alone. There was for marijuana and alcohol together, but it was identical to alcohol.
Some computer apps use reaction time to determine impairment from any cause—alcohol, marijuana, other legal or illegal drugs, concussion or other injuries, or simple fatigue—but law enforcement has been slow to adopt them. Mainly, people use them for self-evaluation.
Does DUI Equal Substance Dependence?
Most DUI sentences assume that the driver has an alcohol dependency and so include either substance abuse rehab or at least attendance in a 12-step program such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
This may not help because the drivers may not think they are alcoholics. They might even be right. Although many U.S. judges and prosecutors seem to believe that only alcoholics or drug addicts would DUI, studies do not confirm this.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people investigated for DUI had been binge drinking, but most (90% in one study) binge drinkers are not alcoholics or have severe alcohol use disorders (AUDs).
The difference is the motivation: binge drinking is a behavior, usually in a social situation. Binge drinkers don’t necessarily drink every day, let alone binge drink every day.
AUD is not a behavior; it’s a chronic disease. Substance use disorders, alcohol or drugs, hijack the reward system. If people with AUD stop drinking, they experience withdrawal symptoms.
People with AUD are more likely to drink and drive, but they don’t make up a commensurate number of those arrested for drinking and driving.
Why People DUI
DUI is a decision, based upon faulty, alcohol-impaired judgment, such as when people:
- Think they were still capable of operating a vehicle safely.
- Didn’t plan for a designated driver.
- Can’t afford a rideshare service or taxi.
- Didn’t think they’d get caught.
Being forced into a program that they don’t want and that they don’t think they need is not likely to lead to long-term sobriety. It is more likely to lead to stress.
Stress After DUI
Whether stress is due to DUI or the DUI caused the stress, it may not end once the case is resolved. It depends in part on how it is resolved.
A conviction for DUI can cause long-term stress:
- Financial. Nolo Network, a group of legal websites, estimated the average cost of a DUI—win or lose—in the thousands, including:
- Bail and court costs.
- If their drivers’ licenses are suspended, there’s a Department of Motor Vehicles fee to reinstate them.
- If the car was towed and impounded, there’s a fee.
- If the court orders attendance in traffic school or substance abuse education, there’s a fee.
- If the court orders an ignition interlock device—that requires passing a breath alcohol test before the vehicle will start—there’s a fee.
- Insurance. Automobile insurance rates usually increase following an accident or DUI.
- Alternative transportation, if license is suspended.
- Restriction of freedom. Not only the loss of driving privileges but also:
- Possible jail time.
- Community service.
- Mandatory rehab or support group attendance.
- Employment. Some drivers could lose their jobs or fail to land another one, directly or indirectly, because of a DUI. It’s considered willful and reckless misconduct.
Even exoneration might not end DUI stress if not everyone believes the driver is innocent. The stigma lingers.
Like substance abuse and driving under the influence, stress kills. It’s better to seek help for stress before a DUI charge becomes an issue, but it may be even more important after.
How a DUI Arrest Causes Stress
There are many stressful elements of a DUI arrest, starting with the stress of being pulled over by the police in the first place. Then there’s the police interaction, which may include being asked to step out of one’s vehicle and take a field sobriety test and a chemical test.
Refusing to take either test doesn’t necessarily prevent an arrest if the police officer has reasonable suspicion (based on the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, erratic driving behavior).
Such refusals may also violate a state’s implied consent law requiring consent to such tests as a condition of the driver’s license. Failing a chemical DUI test will probably result in an arrest.
Then there is the stress of:
- Making bail
- Getting a vehicle out of impound
- Deciding whether or not to fight the charges
- Finding an attorney
That’s all before going to court, which can take stressful weeks or months. If convicted, drivers face many possible penalties, ranging from a fine to imprisonment, driving restrictions to mandatory alcohol or drug rehab.
The penalties are generally less severe for first-time offenses but can increase when the BAC is high (0.15%) or when drivers refuse to consent to a DUI test.
The Effects of Stress
- Skin condition (acne, eczema)
- Muscle tension or pain
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Dizzy spells
- Constipation or diarrhea
- Sexual dysfunction or menstruation problems
- Weight gain or loss
- Anxiety, depression, panic attacks
- Suicidal thoughts
- Lack of motivation or focus
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Suicidal thoughts
- Withdrawing socially
- Exercising less often
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Grinding teeth or clenching the jaw
- Overeating or undereating
- Increasing alcohol, tobacco, and drug use
Preventing the Stress of DUI Arrest
One major cause of stress is the feeling that the individual has no control over the stressor. With drunk or drugged driving, the individual does have control before the fact.
A DUI arrest might have been prevented if drivers:
- Don’t drink heavily. Heavy drinking is defined as more than four drinks per day (or a maximum 14 per week) for men, three per day (seven per week) for women. That’s standard drinks containing one ounce of alcohol. That’s 12 ounces of regular beer (or eight ounces of malt liquor), five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
- Don’t drive unless or until sober. It takes approximately one hour for BAC to return to 0.00% after a standard drink. If drinkers can’t wait and don’t have a designated driver, they can call a taxi or alternative app-driven ridesharing or ridesourcing services.
Managing the Stress of DUI Arrest
After a DUI arrest, stress can’t be prevented so it must be managed. That requires some practical steps to deal with the consequences of the arrest, as well as healing the residual or ongoing stress.
Drivers charged with DUI should:
- Not concede guilt based on a BAC count alone. It might not be accurate. Results from improperly calibrated or otherwise maintained machines have resulted in flawed or inaccurate counts. Thousands of tests in multiple states have been tossed out by the courts as unreliable. Many defense attorneys recommend not agreeing to any test.
- Not volunteer information of which they are uncertain but which could be construed as incriminating.
- Find an attorney if they intend to fight the charge. Laws vary too much by different U.S. states to make defending oneself practical.
- Look for substance abuse rehab if they need it. Driving while drugged or drunk doesn’t necessarily indicate a substance use disorder (though the court may so interpret it), but it could. Whether they avoid conviction or not, they may need rehab help.
- Join a peer support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Rehab may have to wait until after the resolution of their DUI case, but AA can start anytime. The court might take membership and attendance into account when making its decisions.
In general, stress is managed by lifestyle changes and therapies.
Lifestyle changes include:
- Ensuring enough sleep by going to bed early
- Taking deep breaths
- Eating healthy meals
- Not drinking to excess or using drugs other than as prescribed
- Finding a hobby or activity
- Spending time with supportive family and friends
- Avoiding people who do not support lifestyle changes or who trigger bad behaviors
Therapies for stress relief include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A type of psychotherapy designed to change negative thought patterns and so change feelings and behaviors.
- Mindfulness. The use of a combination of alternative therapies—yoga, meditation, acupuncture, aromatherapy, and massage—to be more aware of one’s mind, body, and environment in the present without judgment.
- Ecotherapy. Spending time in nature, in green spaces, can reduce stress.
- Medication-assisted treatments (MAT). Short-term use of antidepressants and benzodiazepines may help (along with therapy) some forms of stress or anxiety. These are powerful drugs, so long-term use or use other than as prescribed is discouraged.
Any of these techniques, alone or in combination, may help with general stress.
DUI Help Resources
- FindTreatment.gov. Site visitors can search by location, explore treatment options, research paying for treatment, and learn more about addiction and mental health.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI’s goal is to advocate, educate, support, and raise awareness on mental illness, with a goal to helping those afflicted build better lives. Besides a wealth of information, it also lets site visitors search for local NAMI resources.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Outlines the criteria that determine if someone has an alcohol use disorder (AUD).
- NIAAA Treatment Navigator. A clearinghouse of information for people with AUDs, including the types of alcohol treatment available, and how to find evidence-based treatment, including for adolescents. It also has information on telehealth and online treatment options.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). This federal agency’s goal is to advance the science on the causes and outcomes of substance use. It has information on the risks of substance use, how to find help, types of treatment (including medications), and more.
- Responsibility.org. This is the work of the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. It has data on state laws, statistics on fatalities, advice for talking to teens about safe driving, information on preventing drunk driving, tools to promote responsible drinking (via a “virtual bar” that determines BAC), and more.
- Rethinking Drinking. This site run by the NIAAA has information about how alcohol affects one’s health. Visitors can also learn about serving sizes, calculate how strong their drink is, evaluate their drinking habit, and find other information, including professional help, expert resources, support groups, and more.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This federal site is a clearinghouse of information. Its National Helpline — 800a662aHELP (4357) — offers free and confidential information in both English and Spanish, 24 hours a day. Individuals with substance use disorders and their loved ones can look for treatment facilities, support groups, community organizations, and information. There is also an online treatment locator that allows site visitors to specify search criteria.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Visit VA.gov for mental health services to help with PTSD, anxiety, substance use, and more. Visitors can find their nearest VA hospital or veterans center, access telehealth, download apps, check out peer assistance programs (BeThere, partnering with Military OneSource), and other mental health resources.
- forbes.com – DUI Vs. DWI: What’s The Difference?
- findlaw.com – Per Se DUI Laws
- nytimes.com – These Machines Can Put You in Jail. Don’t Trust Them.
- findlaw.com – Driving Under the Influence of Drugs
- ctinsider.com – These CT police officers can detect if drivers are high. Here’s how.
- newscentermaine.com – ‘I made a mistake:’ Beloved Biddeford school bus driver accused of OUI speaks out after charges are dropped
- cdc.gov – Impaired Driving: Get the Facts
- ucr.fbi.gov – Table 29: Crime in the U.S. 2019
- valuepenguin.com – Police Stop More Than 32 Million Americans per Year for Traffic Violations
- adirondackdailyenterprise.com – Traffic stops stressful for cops
- phoenix.gov – Frequently Requested Brochures: What to do when Stopped by the Police
- supreme.justia.com – Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106 (1977)
- findlaw.com – DWI Detection and Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) Resources
- nhtsa.gov – Field Sobriety Tests
- electronics.howstuffworks.com – How Breathalyzers Work
- ncbi.nlm.nih.gov – Alcohol breath testing (How does it work?)
- rosap.ntl.bts.gov – Marijuana-Impaired Driving – A Report to Congress
- drunkdrivingstats.org – Binge Drinking Statistics
- cdc.gov – Prevalence of Alcohol Dependence Among US Adult Drinkers, 2009–2011
- bustle.com – 5 Differences Between Binge Drinking & High-Functioning Alcoholism
- one.nhtsa.gov – Why People Drink and Drive: Study Looks at Decisions that Lead to Impaired Driving
- cnbc.com – U.S. workers are among the most stressed in the world, new Gallup report finds
Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.
Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.