Drunk Driving

A brief review of the consequences you face if you get arrested for drunk driving.

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ARTICLE OVERVIEW: This article provides a brief review of the consequences you face if you get arrested for drunk driving. 


What’s the Drunk Driving Limit?

Alcohol is a depressant. It works by slowing down the activity of the central nervous system. When you drink, information and activity across the brain is delayed. Plus, alcohol impairs cognitive and psychomotor skills. For these reasons, drinking and driving increases the risk of:

  • Car accidents
  • Injuries
  • Vehicular deaths

So, what’s the official limit for drink driving?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), it is illegal to drive with blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.8 g/dL or higher in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. This means that your BAC needs to be lower than 0.8 g/dL if you drive. If you’re over that limit, you’re considered to be “alcohol-impaired”.

Alcohol Impairment >= 0.8 g/dL BAC

However, the current limit is up for debate. There is evidence that driving impairment may occur at lower BACs. This article published in the British Medical Journal  challenges us to accept even this alcohol limit for drunk driving. The authors think that 0/8 g/dL is high, and it needs to be much lower.

Also, there is a zero tolerance for alcohol levels in drivers who are minors, under the age of 21. You can find more info about the state policies on underage drinking and driving here. Zero tolerance is also required for operators of a commercial motor vehicle, school bus drivers, and child care vehicle drivers.

Levels of alcohol impairment are determined by a driver’s BAC at the time of arrest.


Drunk driving is known as both DUI or DWI. Both acronyms describe the illegal act of operating a motor vehicle while alcohol and/or drugs impaired. The main difference lies in the meaning of the letters:

  • DUI= Driving Under the Influence
  • DWI= Driving While Intoxicated

NOTE: In some states, the term ‘Driving While Intoxicated’ is referred to as “Operating While Intoxicated,” or OWI.

These terms may sound identical, but some states classify these two conditions as separate crimes. If you live in a state that classifies them separately, a DUI is considered  a lesser level of impairment, and is charge more leniently than a DWI. In other jurisdictions, DUI is only used when the driver is alcohol-impaired, while DWI is only used when the driver is under the influence of drugs. Other states have created a zero tolerance policy which means that there is no distinction between DUI and DWI. These states mandate that any BAC over the legal limit is a crime.

Drunk Driving Dangers

Driving after drinking can cause direct harm and can end in death. Getting behind the wheel after few drinks can be dangerous not only to you, but also to the other drivers and pedestrians.

Approximately one-third of all traffic crash fatalities in the U.S. involve a drunk driver.

Roughly, over 10,000 people die every year due to driving under influence. But death is not the only danger that you are facing when DUI. Some legal consequences may include:

  • Court-ordered alcohol rehab.
  • Fines.
  • Jail sentence.
  • Loss of custody.
  • Loss of employment.
  • Loss of license.

… and more.

Drunk Driving Accident Statistics

Statistically speaking, young men aged 21 to 35 are the critical target group for drunk driving. They are most likely to drive drunk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2010, 4 million U.S. adults reported that had at least one episode of drunk driving. 81% were men, and 32% were young men aged between 21 to 34.

In 2016, more than 1 million drivers were arrested for DUI of alcohol or narcotics. To confirm these numbers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that in 2016, 1,017,808 drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. However, this is only 1% of the 111 million self-reported episodes of DUI among U.S. adults each year.


Finally, the financial impact is devastating: impaired driving crashes costs our American society $44 billion annually.

An estimated 28% of all traffic fatalities occur due to drunk driving.

Drunk Driving Death & Fatalities Statistics

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported just over 10k fatalities in motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with BACs of 0.8 d/dL or higher in 2016. To put it another way, 28% of all traffic fatalities in 2016 were due to alcohol impairment.

1 person dies every 50 minutes due to alcohol-impaired driving.

The top 5 states with the highest number of drunk driving fatalities in 2016 included:

  • Texas 3,776
  • California 3,623
  • Florida 3,174
  • Georgia 1,554
  • North Carolina 1,450

Check out all state statistics in this NHTSA pamphlet on Traffic Safety Facts.

Moreover, this NHTSA report looks into the innocent victims of drunk driving accidents. In 2016, a total of 1,233 children were killed in motor vehicle crashes, and of these fatalities, 214 children died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes. 45% of the time, the child’s own driver was under the influence of alcohol.

Also, CDC reports that from all motor vehicles deaths:

  • 1.3% were children aged 0 to 20 who died due to drunk driving.
  • 6.7% were young adults aged 21 to 35 who died due to drunk driving.
  • 3.1% were adults aged 35+ who died due to drunk driving.

Men are more likely than women to be driving in fatal accidents. In 2016, 21% of males were drunk in these crashes, while only 14% were females.

Find state-specific fact sheets made by CDC here.

About one in three traffic deaths in the United States involves a drunk driver.

You know what?

This cause of these deaths is preventable.

Indentify a designated driver or plan a safe way home when you plan to drink.

Drunk Driving Laws

Laws about drunk driving are set up differently by state. This is why penalties and sentences vary in every state. Commonly, laws involve a combination of the following:

  • Enormous fines
  • Jail time
  • Loss of your driving license
  • Mandated treatment

For instance, in North Carolina, there are five levels of DWI misdemeanor:

  • Level I being the most serious with a fine up to $4,000 and a minimum jail sentence of 30 days to a maximum of two years.
  • Level V being the least serious with a fine up to $200 and a minimum jail sentence of 24 hours and a maximum of 60 days.

Another example is California with fours days in jail for the first offense, 90 days for a second offense, and 120 days for a third offense. Texas mandates three days of jail for the first offense, 30 days for the second, and two years for the third.

Moreover, vehicular assault or vehicular manslaughter brings severe outcomes in most of the states. For example, a person convicted of vehicular manslaughter may face anywhere from zero to 10 years in prison in California. This state recognizes two different charges: Gross Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (facing 4-10 years in state prison), and Vehicular Manslaughter While Intoxicated (up to one year in the county jail or about 16 months in the state prison).

Additionally, different states are more or less aggressive in their DUI and DWI arrest quota. A collection of 2014 DUI arrest research reported the following results after one year of tracking:

  • California had 214,828 arrests
  • Florida had 61,852 arrests
  • New York had 25,169 arrests
  • Texas had 90,066 arrests.

Consequences of Driving Drunk

What’s the price for having few drinks on a night out and then driving?

If you get arrested, some legal consequences may include:

  • Going to jail.
  • Going into court-ordered alcoholism treatment.
  • Losing the custody of your children.
  • Losing your driving license.
  • Losing your job.
  • Paying a fine.

Moreover, if your DUI arrest is combined with a manslaughter conviction, some consequences include the loss of:

  • Custody of children, and parental rights.
  • Employment in certain fields.
  • Government financial aid for college.
  • Jury rights.
  • Professional practice licensing
  • Public housing benefits.
  • Traveling abroad rights.
  • Voting rights.

Drunk Driving Help and Treatment

During a DUI court hearing, the defendant will  usually be required to be evaluated by a qualified court-appointed counselor for an alcohol use disorder assessment. The job of the counselor is to review the court’s records, to conduct the screening process, and to appoint the appropriate alcohol treatment options.

The counselor will take into account:

  • BAC at the time of arrest.
  • History of substance use treatment.
  • The alcohol-impaired offenses.
  • Possibility of other drug use.
  • Possibility of presence of any other mental health disorders.

A treatment referral will be made of one or a combination of the following:

1. Medical detox.
2. Outpatient rehab program.
3. Inpatient rehab program.
4. Support groups.

Once the counselor’s observation is completed, the judge can refer the convicted driver to a host of many rehab programs, starting from a few sessions to structured programs that can last several weeks or months. In some severe cases, the court can order the driver to an inpatient program, while in other cases, the court may appoint only local community services, such as Alcoholic Anonymous meetings. Also, the judge may put the driver on probation.

Court-ordered alcohol rehab is a concern for its effectiveness. Is rehab effective when it isn’t voluntary? Many studies have well established that recovery and willingness to change must come from within the individual. However, the National Institute on Drug Abuse supports the fact that court-appointed rehab can outcome with as positive results as those who enrolled into rehab on their own. Also, the persons who enrolled into rehab under legal pressure have higher rates of attendance, and stay in rehab for longer period.

Your Questions

Did we answer all the questions you have about a DUI or DWI? If not, feel free to post your specific question in the comments section at the end. We will try to answer to all legitimate inquiries personally and promptly.

Reference Sources: NCBI: The Effectiveness of Drinking and Driving Policies for Different Alcohol-Related Fatalities: A Quantile Regression Analysis 
CDC: Sobering Facts: Drunk Driving State Fact Sheets
NHTSA: Drunk Driving
CDS: Impaired Driving: Get the facts
US Department of Transportation: Drunk Driving By the Numbers 
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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