Impaired Driving: Laws, Penalties and Consequences
DUI & DWI Driving Impairment Checkpoint

Impaired Driving: DUI & DWI Laws, Penalties and Consequences

Updated Dec. 25, 2020

The physical and mental effects of drinking alcohol have been proven to impair driving ability to the extent that a person entertains a substantially greater risk of being involved in a fatal collision, should they choose to drive while impaired. This increased risk is reflected in national crash data, which currently indicates that alcohol impairment could be responsible for roughly one-third of all fatal traffic crashes. In a bid to reign in the number of alcohol-related fatalities occurring on our roadways, every state has strict laws against driving while intoxicated. Breaking a drink driving law carries severe penalties, which are designed to deter intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel.

Alcohol laws and the fight against drunk driving are constantly evolving – there is still a long way to go. Current research suggests that anti-drink driving laws are just a small piece of the puzzle. The key to cutting back on the drink driving epidemic is better alcohol awareness and controlling our nation’s alcohol consumption. It seems the threat of severe punishment is not always enough to keep alcohol-impaired people out of the driver’s seat. Plus, until relatively recently, catching and convicting intoxicated drivers was a tricky business. For a start, how exactly do we define “intoxication”?

Each state has its own legal definition of intoxication, though they are all very similar.

California. In California, you are intoxicated if “your mental and/or physical faculties are impaired to such a degree that you no longer have the ability to drive with the caution characteristic of a sober person.

Texas. Texas law defines intoxication as “not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body.

Prior to the development of blood-alcohol testing and the introduction of the legal blood alcohol limit, many alcohol-impaired drivers escaped prosecution if they did not appear overtly “intoxicated”, as it is characterized in statutory definitions. Now, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher legally qualifies as intoxicated, whether the subject seems to be impaired or not.

“Per se” drink driving laws

It has been written into the law in every state that a person automatically qualifies as intoxicated – regardless of their actions or behavior – if they have a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or above. This is known as the “per se” law, as per se means “intrinsically” or “in and of itself”. To put it plainly, a BAC of 0.08% is the only qualifying factor necessary to convict a person of driving while intoxicated; no further evidence of intoxication is required.

What most people do not realize is that they can still be convicted of driving while intoxicated if their BAC is below this threshold. Today’s drink driving laws are designed to leave no legal escape route for those who have driven while impaired. You can be arrested for drink driving if EITHER of the below statements is true:

  • Your BAC is 0.08% or higher.
  • You are displaying signs of alcohol or drug intoxication as defined by state law.

BAC testing

If you are charged with drunk driving, the law enforcement officer who originally pulled you over will be present at your trial to give evidence about your condition. They will explain what caused them to stop you in the first place, describe your behavior by the roadside and explain the outcome of any field sobriety tests they conducted to determine your impairment.

When a police officer suspects you of driving while intoxicated, your blood alcohol concentration will either be tested at the roadside using a breath test or back at the police station using a blood or urine test. If the results show that your BAC is 0.08% or higher, the officer’s testimony about your physical and mental impairment will not be necessary to convict you. However, the judge will take it into account when deciding how harshly to punish you for the crime.

Driving while intoxicated penalties

According to statutory law, every crime is associated with a range of possible penalties from which the ruling judge may deal out punishment, based on the circumstances of the case. As far as driving while intoxicated is concerned, the factors which will be considered in determining a punishment include:

  • Whether anybody was injured or killed.
  • Whether any property damage was caused.
  • Whether the offender cooperated or resisted arrest.
  • How far above the legal BAC limit the offender was, or;
  • How mentally and/or physically impaired they were.
  • Whether the offender has previously been convicted of DUI or other similar offenses.

Partway through this section, you will find a detailed module on driving while intoxicated penalties that discusses the range of possible punishments a DWI or DUI conviction may incur. For now, just know that driving under the influence of alcohol is likely to result in a sizable fine, possible jail time and immediate license revocation.

If you are convicted of intoxication assault (injuring another person while driving under the influence) you could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. In the event that somebody dies as a result of your actions, you may be sentenced to up to 20 years for intoxication manslaughter.

DWI driver’s license suspension

If you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol, it could be a very long time before you are allowed to get back in the driver’s seat. When the penalties for DWI include license suspension AND a term of imprisonment (as they often do), the license suspension will not begin until the offender has finished serving their time in jail.

Restricted driving privileges

A drunk driving conviction practically guarantees that your driver’s license will be suspended or in the case of repeat offenses, permanently revoked. However, there are some circumstances under which an offender may be allowed to retain their driving privileges if they adhere to certain restrictions.

Ignition interlock device

A driver with a suspended license as a result of a DWI conviction may be able to apply for a restricted license, which will permit them to drive if their car is fitted with an ignition interlock device (IID). This mechanism is installed in the vehicle’s ignition system, to control when the car will start. To activate the engine, the driver must blow into the IID to give a blood alcohol concentration reading. If the driver’s BAC is over a pre-determined limit (this is usually lower than the standard 0.08% limit), the vehicle will not start. Keep in mind that ignition interlock devices are expensive, and the cost of their installation is usually covered by the driver.

Essential needs license

An occupational or essential needs license may be awarded to a driver whose license has been suspended due to driving while intoxicated if they can prove that they have an “essential need” to drive. This may include traveling to work or school (when no alternative modes of transport are available) or transporting a family member to essential appointments. A driver with an essential needs license is only permitted to use their car for the purposes set out on the license. If they are found driving for any other reason, their license will be revoked. Occupational and essential needs licenses are usually not an option for drivers who have committed very serious or repeat DWI offenses.

The impaired driving epidemic

Currently, approximately 10,000 people are killed every year in the United States as a result of alcohol or drug-impaired driving. Driving while intoxicated is a colossal problem for our country but looking back at decades gone by, it becomes apparent how far we have come in tackling the issue. Ten thousand deaths – however tragic, unnecessary and preventable – are a drop in the ocean compared to previous national death tolls. Prior to the introduction of the national minimum drinking age and the current per se BAC limit, alcohol-impaired driving escalated to the point where 6 out of every 10 traffic deaths were caused by an intoxicated driver.

The alcohol laws which we take for granted today were not always here to protect us. In fact, it took the best part of a century, numerous campaigns and hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths to affect the legal changes required to protect US road users from the consequences of alcohol impairment. Even now, the problem is far from resolved.

Following this introduction, we explore the big picture of the impaired driving epidemic. Find out how alcohol and drug impairment increase roadway risk and get caught up on the history of intoxicated driving.

The cost of drunk driving

Next up, we analyze the human cost and economic impact of alcohol-impaired driving. Who are those 10,000 innocent people whose lives are cut short by drunk driving?

Getting behind the wheel while impaired by alcohol is as good as signing your own death warrant. A considerable number of people killed in drunk driving crashes are the impaired drivers themselves. Sadly, they often take completely innocent and unimpaired road users with them. Vulnerable road users such as children, elderly people, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists frequently pay the price for a drunk driver’s mistake.

For every person killed in a drunk driving collision, dozens more lives are irreversibly ruined. By driving while intoxicated, you could be taking away somebody’s mother, father, sibling, best friend, wife, husband or child. In some drunk driving collisions, entire families are wiped out. We see these tragedies on the news practically every day and yet millions of people still take to the roads while alcohol-impaired. No motorist believes it will happen to them, but it can and will if you drive while intoxicated.

Drunk driving is a plague that infects and undermines every aspect of our society. If 10,000 or more people are killed every year, imagine how many more are injured, traumatized or financially crippled by alcohol-related collisions. The scope of the problem is almost beyond comprehension. Without even factoring in the impact on happiness and well-being, drunk driving costs the United States billions of dollars every year.

Understanding DUI and DWI laws

Learning about DUI laws and penalties is a vital aspect of your driver’s education program. Throughout this section, we discuss everything you must know about the legal ramifications of driving under the influence, so that you can be fully aware of the consequences of your actions should you choose to drink and drive. We start by picking apart the terminology used to describe intoxicated driving crimes - is there a difference between DUI and DWI?


“Driving under the influence” and “driving while intoxicated” may refer to different crimes, depending on the state in which they were committed. We provide some examples of the distinction between the two terms in different states in our full module on this topic. In some states, DUI and DWI are used interchangeably to refer to the same criminal act. Your driver’s handbook and the DMV website will contain more information on DUI and DWI crimes (and their associated penalties) in your state.

The implied consent laws

If you are pulled over by the police on suspicion of drunk driving, refusing to take a breathalyzer test will not save you from prosecution. In fact, it is likely to lead to harsher punishments. Declining a BAC test is an offense in itself, as you made a legally binding commitment to facilitate anti-drunk driving measures when you submitted your driver’s license application papers. By signing your name on the dotted line (either physically or electronically) you implied your future consent to BAC testing.

Every state utilizes the implied consent law, though the penalties for violating it vary considerably around the country. Lack of a blood alcohol reading will not protect you in court, as you can be convicted of DWI purely based on the testimony of the arresting officer. The fact that you refused the test will only make you appear more guilty. Plus, there is a very strong chance that the officer who arrests you will obtain a warrant which permits them to administer a BAC test by force.

The consequences of drunk driving

A person who operates a vehicle while intoxicated risks a wide variety of negative consequences. Even if you manage to drive while drunk and avoid any immediate repercussions (like arrest, collision or death) you will be in a worse position than before you committed the crime. Research has shown that the average drunk driver has driven while intoxicated dozens of times before finally getting caught. The fact that you “get away with it” once will leave you with a false sense of confidence, making it more likely that you will drink and drive again. Each occasion that you drive while impaired brings you one step closer to these other likely outcomes:

  1. 1

    A criminal record.
    Having a DUI on your record could stop you from getting your dream job or being accepted into college.

  2. 2

    Social exclusion.
    Your friends, family and neighbors may treat you differently when they hear about the crime.

  3. 3

    Financial ruin.
    DWI convictions are costly. Not including compensation for injury or property damage, your court case could cost as much as $20,000.

  4. 4

    Serious injury.
    You could end up with debilitating injuries or lifelong disabilities if you are involved in a drunk driving collision.

  5. 5

    Drunk driving collisions are often catastrophic. The people involved frequently suffer painful, traumatic deaths.

Of course, you will not be the only person who suffers if you choose to drink and drive. There is a very good chance that you will injure, kill or seriously inconvenience other people if you get into a wreck. Even if that is not the case, your actions will negatively affect countless other people, including your family, friends, the wider community, law enforcement officers and other innocent road users who are nearby when you crash.

As a young novice driver, you are even more likely to experience serious negative repercussions when you drink and drive. Teenagers are already far more at risk of being involved in a deadly collision as compared to older drivers. Adding to that risk with alcohol impairment often has deadly consequences.

Teen drinking risks and facts

National crash data shows that young people aged 15 to 20 are responsible for a disproportionately large number of fatal traffic collisions, considering they only represent about 5% of all licensed drivers in the country. Due to lack of driving experience, unrefined vehicle control skills and a tendency toward risk-taking behavior, teenagers are:

  • More likely to drive after consuming alcohol
  • More likely to die in an alcohol-related collision

If you intend to live beyond your 21st birthday, give alcohol the wide berth it deserves. When you have had a couple of drinks it is all too easy to convince yourself that you are fine to drive. It does not matter if the drive home is just a couple of miles, or if you really need to get somewhere urgently, there will never be a justifiable reason to get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol.

Our full module on factors affecting teen drinking includes some alarming statistics and shocking facts about the prevalence of teenage drink driving around the United States. We also look at some of the main reasons that young people drink alcohol, despite it being an illegal and dangerous habit. When you understand that these “reasons” are in fact, myths, you can avoid being sucked into the alcohol trap.

Drunk driving avoidance tips

Young people in the United States are constantly put in situations where they are tempted to drink and drive. Practically all social occasions involve alcohol! Unless you leave your car at home, lock away your keys, or avoid drinking alcohol forever, you will eventually find yourself in the position where the idea of driving after drinking crosses your mind.

In these situations, it is important to remember that driving while impaired by alcohol is not your only option. In fact, it should not feature ANYWHERE on your list of options. Getting a cab, using public transport, sleeping at your friend’s house or even sleeping in a bus shelter are ALL better choices than drunk driving. This module contains seven impaired driving avoidance tactics that every driver should know. One day, this information could save your life.

Teen drinking “zero tolerance” laws

Whereas adults can legally drive with any blood alcohol concentration below 0.08%, the blood alcohol limit for drivers under 21 years old is considerably lower. In many states, having any detectable amount of alcohol in your blood while driving will see you arrested and charged with DUI. Around the country, the legal BAC limit for under 21s ranges from 0.00% to 0.02%, thanks to “zero tolerance” laws.

Let us not forget that a minor who is arrested for DWI will also be charged with possession and consumption of alcohol. Only under certain circumstances (in most states) are persons under 21 legally permitted to drink or possess alcohol. There are a handful of states in which possession and consumption of alcohol is always illegal for those under 21. Find all the information you need on teen alcohol laws, underage drinking penalties and DUI penalties for under 21s in this crucial module on zero-tolerance laws. We have included several state-specific alcohol laws but if your state is not mentioned, be sure to check your driving manual.

You will also find information on related alcohol laws in this section, which includes:

  • Open container laws
  • Fake ID laws and penalties
  • Supplying a minor with alcohol
  • Age limits for serving and handling alcohol

Do alcohol laws prevent drink driving?

When thousands of people still die every year as a result of drink driving collisions, it is easy to forget that we have made progress. If drink driving laws and alcohol regulations work, why are so many people still driving while intoxicated?

We know for certain that tough alcohol laws and regulations do prevent drink driving – to an extent. Thanks to landmark changes in alcohol laws like the raising of the minimum legal drinking age and the lowering of the per se BAC limit, hundreds and thousands of lives have been saved over the past 20 years or so alone. The fact that people still drink and drive simply indicates that we have not yet “fine-tuned” drunk driving prevention measures in the United States.

General alcohol restriction is an important weapon against drunk driving. The states which have tough alcohol laws and lower rates of binge drinking also have the lowest drink-driving death rates in the country. Alcohol laws exist to protect you and they do work, providing you obey them.

Living a “zero tolerance” life

If you are under 21 years old and not yet old enough to legally consume alcohol – do not drink. Illegal possession and consumption of alcohol carry serious consequences, even if you do not drive while intoxicated. Furthermore, avoiding alcohol together is the only way to 100% guarantee that you will not make a bad judgment call and get behind the wheel while impaired by alcohol. Drink driving must be avoided at all costs and taking a “zero tolerance” approach to drinking is the best way to achieve this.

Do not make the mistake of thinking that abstaining from drinking will in some way make your life less satisfying, as this could not be further from the truth! Drinking alcohol brings nothing but poor health, bad grades, limited career prospects, shame, regret and hangovers. By choosing to stay sober, you will be physically fit, healthy and clear-headed enough to enjoy life to the full. Our final article talks about enjoying your sobriety and circumnavigating the social pressures that lead people to drink in the first place. We also discuss steps you can take to avoid drink driving and other alcohol-related dangers if you do choose to consume alcohol, as let’s face it, nobody makes perfect decisions all the time. These include:

  • Being a designated driver (or being driven by one)
  • Watching out for alcohol poisoning
  • Alternatives to driving if you have had a drink and do not have a designated driver
  • How to spot alcohol impairment in other drivers

It is important to arm yourself with this knowledge prior to getting into any situation which may involve alcohol. As you are about to find out, the consequences of not embracing anti-drink driving tactics can be deadly. Remember that thousands of drivers and passengers die every year due to alcohol-related traffic crashes and most of these people never believed it would happen to them. Now, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

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