Getting pulled over for driving under the influence — it doesn’t matter if it’s for alcohol or drugs — is just the first step in a mountain of trouble.
Every U.S. state and territory has different penalties, but they’re never as simple as a ticket and an apology.
Offenders could face any number of punishments. Higher car insurance rates are pretty much a given, but there could be much more, including arrest, court costs, losing your license, punitive fines, attorney fees, community service and/or jail time, and much more, especially if you’re a repeat offender.
In some cases a first-time offense can end up costing the driver more than $10,000 in legal fees and fines. It can also double a person’s insurance premiums.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has been around for 40 years trying to eradicate the problem. Not only does it push for awareness, it also advocates for safety measures such as sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlock devices that won’t let a vehicle start if a person fails its built-in breathalyzer. (And the offender pays for those preventive devices, too, FYI.)
When facing charges of driving under the influence, a person may seek ways to drive down the severity of the punishment. Drug or alcohol rehabilitation may not be a guarantee of reduced charges, but it can only help. Both in the eyes of the law and for the health of the problem driver.
DWI, DUIs, and Other Terms
Depending on where a person lives, operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs might be known by various terms, including driving while impaired (DWI), driving under the influence (DUI), operating while impaired or operating while intoxicated (OWI), operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor (OUI), operating a vehicle while intoxicated (OVI), or driving under the influence of intoxicants (DUII).
No matter what localities call the offense, it is illegal in all 50 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia — 0.08% blood alcohol concentration is considered impaired. But penalties, jail time, and other punitive measures differ by area.
MADD ranks states on how tough their laws against impaired driving are. A state such as Arizona receives high MADD marks because it offers ignition interlock devices, sobriety checkpoints, automatic license revocation, and child endangerment penalties. It also treats a refusal to a sobriety test as a failed sobriety test.
Other states aren’t quite as strict, per MADD’s 2019 report, but that could change. Some states continue to make their laws tougher. In 2019, for example, Utah set its BAC at 0.05%.
With campaigns such as those run by MADD, drunk driving deaths have gone down in the last three decades. Still, more than 10,000 people die in drunk-driving crashes every year. About one-third of traffic-linked fatalities involved alcohol. In 2010, drunk driving cost the U.S. economy $44 billion.
Blood Alcohol Concentration
Blood alcohol concentration, (BAC), is also referred to as blood alcohol content or breath alcohol concentration. BAC is the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. If a person has a BAC of 0.10% it means that their blood supply contains one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts of their blood. BAC is determined by a number of factors, including:
- Number of drinks (measuring standard drinks; one drink at a bar might equal more than one standard drink)
- A person’s gender at birth
- Body weight
- How quickly someone consumes alcohol
- Enzyme production and levels
Not only can a person put others in danger with the more they drink, but they also put themselves at risk.The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) shares the effects of BAC at various levels, and how BAC affects driving:
- 0.02. A person’s judgment grows fuzzier. They’re more relaxed and their visual functions are slightly impaired. Focusing on two tasks at once becomes more difficult.
- 0.05. A person’s behavior may grow exaggerated. Some small-muscle control (such as the ability to focus) is compromised. Judgment is further impaired as inhibitions are reduced. They’re not so alert. On the road, coordination is down, as is the ability to track a moving object. They find it harder to steer and their response rate is down.
- 0.08. Balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing are compromised. Judgment, self-control, reasoning, memory, and the ability to detect danger are impaired. On the road, concentration, perception, short-term memory, and reaction times are negatively affected.
- 0.10. Reaction time and control deteriorate. Speech is slurred, coordination is off, thinking is slowed. It gets much harder to stay in one’s lane and brake in time.
- 0.15. Reduced muscle control and vomiting are possible. Balance is hard to maintain. Driving grows worse, with reduced attention and slowed visual and auditory processing. It becomes harder to control the car.
Once a person gets past the 0.15 BAC level they turn more into a “sloppy drunk” and may experience nausea. At the 0.25 stage they’ll be severely drunk, and may need help walking. Vomiting becomes more likely too.
If a person gets to 0.35 BAC, they’re in danger of losing consciousness, and by 0.40 they run the risk of coma, respiratory failure, and even death.
Even if a person is drinking at home, those higher levels of impairment put them in danger of falling, self-injury, coma, or death.
Laws relating to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs vary. MADD, for example, in 2019 gave states such as Arizona and Colorado higher rankings for more preventive measures such as sobriety checkpoints, child endangerment laws, and ignition interlock devices, while other states such as Michigan and Wyoming received lower marks for having fewer penalties in place.
Driving while impaired (or under the influence or intoxicated) remains illegal across the board, however. Some sort of penalty will be levied. Auto insurance may climb drastically, and a ticket may be pricey.
But where a person receives the DWI/DUI/OWI, whether it’s their first offense, how high their BAC levels are, if anyone is injured or killed, or if any property is damaged can also factor into the punishment.
Many attorneys will say going into rehab can only work in a person’s favor. If you’re considering getting a lawyer, doing it sooner rather than later is preferable. They can steer you toward rehab if they think it will help reduce the punishment.
Attending rehab may also get fines lowered. It can get potential jail time reduced. It shows a commitment to getting better.
Some attorneys can use a client’s time in rehab as credit against jail time or a work program. It also can increase the odds of reinstating one’s driver’s license or getting a work-restricted license (also known as a hardship license) that allows them to get to their jobs and to get to and from rehab, outpatient treatment, or support group meetings.
Some Common DUI/DWI Terms
- Per se. Translated from Latin, it means by itself or in itself. All U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have per se laws, designating a blood alcohol content of 0.08. Basically, anyone driving with a BAC of 0.08 — determined by a breathalyzer or blood test — is automatically guilty of driving under the influence.
- Zero tolerance laws. For anyone under the legal drinking age of 21, zero tolerance laws apply. Basically, it’s illegal for anyone underage to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system. These stem from Congress raising the national minimum drinking age to 21, and also because younger drivers who have been drinking are more likely to be involved in deadly car crashes.
- Blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Or blood alcohol content or breath alcohol concentration. This is the amount of alcohol in a person’s bloodstream. If a person has a BAC of 0.10% it means their blood supply contains one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts blood.
- Standard drink. A standard drink is 12 ounces of beer that contains 5% alcohol; 5 ounces of wine that contains 12% alcohol; or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits such as vodka or rum, which typically are around 40% alcohol, or 80 proof. Many bars and restaurants serve more than a standard serving, so one eatery’s glass of wine may actually equal more (sometimes double) than a standard drink. A cocktail with several different liquors — a Long Island iced tea, for example, with its variety of liquors and small amount of mixer — may easily equal two or more drinks, depending on your bartender.
- SR-22. This insurance add-on is often necessary for anyone with a DUI/DWI/OWI conviction. It shows that the driver has enough insurance coverage. They may need to maintain the certification for up to three years, and if insurance lapses during that time their license risks suspension. There’s a small fee to get the form, but where the driver will really pay is through higher auto insurance premiums. Some insurance providers may not insure a person with an impaired driving conviction, either.
- Diversion program. These programs focus on giving offenders a second chance, typically through some form of rehabilitation. It could be attending a safe driving school or rehab. Each U.S. state has different options. Some people may have to report for regular sobriety tests or wear ankle bracelets that monitor for alcohol consumption. Others may have to report for regular drug tests or wear patches that can detect various drugs. Meeting such requirements can be time-consuming and costly, but the trade-off is reduced charges of some sort.
- Ignition interlock system (IIS). In some cases a driver with a DWI/DUI/OWI record may be permitted to drive (and sometimes only to work or school) when they have an IIS device installed. They’ll blow into the IIS, and if the breathalyzer reads as alcohol-free, the car will start. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates these devices have reduced repeat drunk-driving offenses by as much as 67%. Drivers are typically required to pay the cost of such devices. All U.S. states have some kind of IIS program in place, though some states are more lenient.
- Drugged driving. Even with marijuana legal in some form (medical or recreational) in many U.S. states, driving while high on marijuana is illegal. Drugged driving does not apply to marijuana only, however. (It’s worth noting that today’s cannabis is much stronger than it was just 20 years ago.) There are hundreds of drugs — legal and otherwise — that have the potential to impair driving. Illicit drug use among drivers has climbed 25% between 2007 and 2014. Marijuana detection has risen nearly 50%.
How Law Enforcement Identifies Impaired Drivers
- Drug recognition expert (DRE) program. This program trains law enforcement to better identify drug impairment in drivers through a 12-step evaluation process that includes physical, mental, and medical checks.
- Standardized field sobriety testing (SFST). A driver suspected of driving while impaired will be tested on balance, coordination, and how well they focus on multiple tasks (such as standing on one leg and counting backwards).
- Advanced roadside impaired driving enforcement (ARIDE). This is an extension on SFST training, with further focus on identifying alcohol, drug, and alcohol/drug impairment.
- Governors Highway Safety Association. Visitors can use this site to search for impaired driving laws by U.S. state to get a clearer idea of local laws.
- Roadwise Rx. AAA offers this tool, found at roadwiserx.com, so people can search for medications or herbal supplements they are taking, check for interactions, and learn how these substances may affect one’s driving.
Types of Treatment Programs
For the person considering drug or alcohol rehabilitation, there are plenty of options. The best approach tends to be something based on sound, scientific-backed treatment protocols as well as being tailored for the client’s unique needs.
The first goal is to get the person detoxed, often with medically assisted treatment (MAT). MAT can make the withdrawal process safer and far more comfortable. From there, a person may consider:
- Long-term residential (inpatient) treatment. Provides 24-hour care in a therapeutic community setting. Stays vary, but often last six to 12 months. Counseling, support, employment training and more may be incorporated.
- Short-term residential (inpatient) treatment. These are shorter, but often more intense treatment programs. They can last 28 days, or go on for 60, 90, or even 120 days. They address drug or alcohol problems, and include counseling, group meetings, and developing an aftercare plan to prevent relapse.
- Outpatient treatment programs. These programs can vary from drug education to intensive day treatment. Some people will opt for outpatient treatment because it’s less costly than residential or inpatient options. People who still need to work or who have a strong social network to help keep them abstinent may do well in outpatient.
- Individualized drug counseling. On one hand this focuses on reducing or stopping drug or alcohol use, but it may also address other issues or obstacles a person may face (family-related or work-related problems) as well as helping develop strategies to stay sober.
- Group support. Peer support can reinforce drug- or alcohol-free behaviors. This support can include 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which tend to be at least in part faith-based, or SMART Recovery, which focuses more on scientific principles.
There is some evidence that blending criminal justice deterrents with addiction treatment can be an effective option, due in part to keeping the treatment uninterrupted.
While rehabilitation isn’t necessarily cheap — your health insurance can make a huge difference here too — it’s often a good investment in one’s health and in one’s reputation.
One other reason not to drink (or drug) and drive is life insurance. With a record, you may still be able to buy life insurance in the years following a DUI/DWI/OWI, but it can cost you. Some insurance providers will consider you a risk, and you’ll likely pay higher premiums. DUIs might get you labeled as an alcoholic, and you’ll be categorized as more likely to contract some cancers, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more.
The best advice when it comes to drinking and driving is: don’t do it. If you have, however, and you find yourself on the wrong side of the law, it’s time to ask yourself some serious questions, including:
- Do I need an attorney?
- Should I consider going to drug or alcohol rehab? Will it help?
In short, they can. Sometimes an attorney can reduce some penalties, especially when efforts to fix the problem are attempted.. But perhaps more importantly, if there’s a serious problem, rehab can maybe save your life. And those of others.
- nhtsa.gov – Drunk Driving
- crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov – Traffic Safety Facts: 2016 Data
- madd.org – State Statistics
- ghsa.org – Alcohol Impaired Driving
- healthyhorns.utexas.edu – Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC)
- alcohol.stanford.edu – What is BAC?
- nhtsa.gov – How alcohol affects driving ability
- azdot.gov – Special Restricted Driver License
- alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov – The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act
- niaaa.nih.gov – What Is A Standard Drink?
- moneygeek.com – The Real Costs of a DUI & How to Avoid Them
- michigan.aaa.com – Bad Influence: The use of legal and illegal drugs is a growing menace on our roadways
- marketwatch.com – The Strictest and Most Lenient States for DUI
- chp.ca.gov – ARIDE: Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement
- roadwiserx.com/ – Roadwise RX
- sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – Medication Assisted Treatment
- drugabuse.gov – Types of Treatment Programs
- sunshinebehavioralhealth.com – How Much Does Addiction Rehab Cost?
- nerdwallet.com – How DUIs Can Wreck Your Chance to Buy Life Insurance
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.