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Drunk driving in the United States


Drunk driving in the United States

Drunken driving is the act of operating or driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs to the degree that mental and motor skills are impaired. It is illegal in all jurisdictions within the United States, though enforcement varies widely between and within states/territories.

The specific criminal offense is usually called driving under the influence (DUI), and in some states 'driving while intoxicated' (DWI), 'operating while impaired' (OWI), or 'operating a vehicle under the influence' (OVI). Such laws may also apply to boating or piloting aircraft. Vehicles can include farm machinery and horse-drawn carriages.

In the United States the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 17,941 people died in 2006 in alcohol-related collisions, representing 40% of total traffic deaths in the US. NHTSA states 275,000 were injured in alcohol-related accidents in 2003.[1] The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 1996 local law enforcement agencies made 1,467,300 arrests nationwide for driving under the influence of alcohol, 1 out of every 10 arrests for all crimes in the U.S., compared to 1.9 million such arrests during the peak year in 1983, accounting for 1 out of every 80 licensed drivers in the U.S.[2][3]

NHTSA defines fatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if they believe the driver, a passenger, or non-motorist (such as a pedestrian or pedal cyclist) had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01% or greater. NHTSA defines nonfatal collisions as alcohol-related if the accident report indicates evidence of alcohol present. NHTSA specifically notes that alcohol-related does not necessarily mean a driver or non-occupant was tested for alcohol and that the term does not indicate a collision or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol.[4] On average, about 60% of the BAC values are missing or unknown. To analyze what they believe is the complete data, statisticians simulate BAC information.[5] Drivers with a BAC of 0.10% are 6 to 12 times more likely to get into a fatal crash or injury than drivers with no alcohol.[6]


  • Laws and regulations 1
    • Driving under the influence 1.1
    • Flying and boating under the influence 1.2
    • Physician reporting 1.3
    • Driving While Impaired courts 1.4
    • Criminal penalties 1.5
    • Administrative and civil penalties 1.6
      • SR-22 1.6.1
      • Diversion programs 1.6.2
      • DUI plates 1.6.3
      • Ignition interlock devices 1.6.4
      • Vehicle impoundment and forfeiture 1.6.5
  • Cost of a DUI 2
  • History of drunken driving laws 3
  • Statistics 4
  • Typical DUI investigation and arrest 5
    • Reasonable suspicion to stop 5.1
    • Investigation 5.2
    • Field sobriety tests 5.3
    • Criticism 5.4
      • Walk-and-Turn Test 5.4.1
    • Probable cause to arrest 5.5
    • Chemical test 5.6
    • Booking and charging 5.7
  • Interventions 6
  • International comparisons 7
  • See also 8
  • Footnotes 9
  • Further reading 10

Laws and regulations

Driving under the influence

For the most part, DUI or DWI are synonymous terms that represent the criminal offense of operating (or in some jurisdictions merely being in physical control of) a motor vehicle while being under the influence of alcohol or drugs or a combination of both. The key inquiry focuses on whether the driver's faculties were impaired by the substance that was consumed. The detection and successful prosecution of drivers impaired by prescription medication or illegal drugs can therefore be difficult. Breathalyzers have been developed for the purpose of administering roadside or laboratory tests that can detect the actual level of a controlled substance in an individual's body.

All states in the U.S. designate a per se blood or breath alcohol level as the threshold point for an independent criminal offense. A second criminal offense of driving "under the influence" or "while impaired" is also usually charged in most states, with a permissive presumption of guilt where the person's BAC is 0.08% or greater (units of milligrams per deciliter, representing 8 g of alcohol in 10 liters of blood).[7] Some states (e.g., Colorado) include a lesser charge, sometimes referred to as "driving while ability impaired" that may apply to individuals with a 0.05% or above, but less than the 0.08% per se limit for the more serious charge.[7]

Wisconsin regards first offense drunk driving as a municipal offense, and New Jersey treats all drunk driving cases without serious injury or death as traffic violations.[8] The amount of alcohol intake to reach a BAC of 0.08% may vary with the individual's body composition and state of health. Prior to increased emphasis on drinking and driving in the 1980s, standards of 0.10%-0.15% were in place. The legal limit for commercial drivers in New York is set at 0.04%.[7]

California has a general 0.08% BAC limit, a lower limit of 0.04% for drivers holding commercial drivers licenses (CDL), and a limit of 0.01% for drivers who are under 21 or on probation for previous DUI offenses.[9]

New Jersey has a general 0.08% BAC limit, but people can be convicted of drunk driving even when the BAC is under that limit.[10]

North Carolina has a general 0.08% BAC limit,[11] a lower limit of 0.04% for drivers holding commercial drivers licenses (CDL) while operating a commercial vehicle. [12] Additionally it is illegal for anyone under the age of twenty-one (21) to possess or consume alcohol.[13]

Flying and boating under the influence

Federal Aviation Regulation 91.17 (14 C.F.R. 91.17) prohibits pilots from flying aircraft with an alcohol level of 0.04% or more, or within eight hours of consuming alcohol, or while under the impairing influence of any drug. The same prohibition applies to any other crew members on duty aboard the aircraft (flight attendants, etc.). Some airlines impose additional restrictions, and many pilots also impose stricter standards upon themselves. Commercial pilots found to be in violation of regulations are typically fired or resign voluntarily, and they may lose their pilot certificates and be subject to criminal prosecution under Federal or State laws, effectively ending their careers.

Similar laws apply to other activities involving transportation; Michigan prohibits intoxicated bicycling, horseback riding, buggy driving, use of motorized farm implements, or boating, the latter whether a pilot or passenger, with much the same threshold of intoxication. In the case of boating, the laws extend to include kayaks, canoes, sailboats—any floatation device that needs to be steered in water. Different states have different laws and classifications on the level of transgression attached to a citation for boating under the influence.

Alcohol use was the number one contributing factor in U.S. recreational boating deaths between 2003 and 2012, accounting for 15 percent of the fatalities in 2003, and 17 percent in 2012.[14] A Canadian study published in 2011 examined 18 years of data on recreational boating, and concluded that a "true figure" of alcohol-related deaths in that country "may lie between 46% and 56%".[15]:15

Physician reporting

Six states require physicians to report patients who drive while impaired.[16] Another 25 states permit physicians to violate doctor-patient confidentiality to report impaired drivers, if they so choose.[16] The American Medical Association endorsed physician reporting in 1999, but deferred to the states on whether such notification should be mandatory or permissive.[16] Medical bioethicist Jacob Appel of New York University says physician reporting may deter some patients from seeking care, writing "Reporting may remove some dangerous drivers from the roads, but if in doing so it actually creates other dangerous drivers, by scaring them away from treatment, then society has sacrificed confidentiality for no tangible return in lives saved."[16]

Driving While Impaired courts

These innovative courts use substance abuse intervention with repeat offenders who plead guilty to driving while intoxicated. Those accepted into the diversionary program are required to abstain from alcohol. Some are required to wear a device that monitors and records any levels of alcohol detected in their bloodstreams.

Criminal penalties

Many jurisdictions require more such as jail time and larger fines. Compared to many other countries, penalties for drunk driving in the United States are light, unless alcohol is involved in an incident causing injury or death of others, in which case they are very heavy compared to other nations.

Administrative and civil penalties

The federal Assimilative Crimes Act, which makes state law applicable on lands reserved or acquired by the Federal government when the act or omission is not made punishable by an enactment of Congress, recognizes collateral actions related to DUI convictions as punishments. According to 18 U.S.C. § 13:

… that which may or shall be imposed through judicial or administrative action under the law of a State, territory, possession, or district, for a conviction for operating a motor vehicle under the influence of a drug or alcohol, shall be considered to be a punishment provided by that law …


An SR-22 is an administrative form that attests to an insurance company's coverage, or the posting of a personal public bond in the amount of the state's minimum liability coverage for the licensed driver/ or vehicle registration. The SR in SR-22 stands for Safety Responsibility, and it's needed to reinstate a suspended driver's license after a DUI conviction. It is submitted to the state by an auto insurance company to serve as proof that a driver has the minimum liability insurance that the states requires. SR-22s are typically filed with the respective State's DMV, and in some States must be carried by the licensed driver, or in the registered vehicle (particularly if the licensee has been cited for coverage lapses, DUI or other administrative infractions). SR-22s may attest coverage for a vehicle regardless of operator (owner liability coverage), or cover a specific person regardless of the specific vehicle operated (operator liability coverage).

The form is required in 49 states and the US District of Columbia in order to register a vehicle for usage on public roads. It is also required to redeem a license which has been suspended due to coverage lapse in these required states. These states also, generally, require that the issuing insurance company provide the relevant state's DMV with timely updates as to the status of such coverage. If the policy with the SR22 cancels, a form called an SR26 is issued and sent to the state DMV.[17] Upon notice that there has been a lapse in coverage, the state will suspend the driver's license again. Another SR-22 filing will need to be submitted to regain driving privileges.

Diversion programs

Some jurisdictions, such as those in California, may impose the completion of diversion programs (also known as DUI programs). One such program is the Victim Impact Panel (VIP) administered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) since 1982.

DUI plates

Sample version of Ohio's DUI plate mandated on DUI offenders with limited driving rights.

In 1967, Ohio began to issue special license plates to DUI offenders who are granted limited driving privileges such as work-related driving until a court can rule that they can have full privileges back. However, judges rarely enforced the plates, so in 2004, the plates became mandated by state law to all DUI offenders.[18] Unlike Ohio's standard-issue plates (which as of 2008 have a picture of the Ohio country side), the DUI plates are yellow with red writing with no registration stickers or graphics. They are commonly referred to as "party plates".[18]

Minnesota has a similar program, where the plates are white with either blue or black text. The plate number is a "W", followed by a letter and four numbers. These plates may be issued to drivers with at least 2 DUIs in a ten-year period.[19] In Minnesota, DUI plates are referred to as "whiskey plates",[20] whiskey being the name of the letter W in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

Ignition interlock devices

Some states, such as California, may impose the installation of ignition interlock devices in cases where the driver's BAC is over 0.20%, or 0.15% in some places. These additional sanctions are an attempt to deter and punish the operation of a vehicle at extremely high BAC levels and the concomitant danger posed to the safety of persons and property by heavily impaired drivers.

As of July 1, 2010, California implemented a pilot project for DUI sentencing. In four counties, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Tulare and Alameda, first offenders convicted of drunk driving are required to install an ignition interlock device in their car for a period of five months. Previously, this requirement was only mandated for second offenders and then for a three-year period. California DMV has now written guidelines to clear up any ambiguities in the law.

Costs associated with ignition interlock devices include $50 – $200 for installation and as much as $100 per month in fees thereafter.[21]

Vehicle impoundment and forfeiture

Some states, such as California, allow for the impoundment and forfeiture of vehicles under certain conditions.[22][23]

Cost of a DUI

In the United States, paying the DUI ticket, court costs, and attorney fees is just the start of a person's financial obligations after a DUI conviction. Additional costs of a DUI conviction will often involve the installation and maintenance fees of a vehicle Ignition Interlock Device, which serves the same function as a Breathalyzer to enable the vehicle to start. A person convicted of a driving under the influence charge, can also expect to pay higher insurance rates and premiums.[24]

History of drunken driving laws

1937 WPA drunk driving poster

It is often reported that the first jurisdiction in the United States of America to adopt laws against drunken driving was New York in 1910, with California and others following. However, a 1907 article from the Detroit Free Press that came to light in December 2013, clearly indicates otherwise.

Here is the text verbatim from the December 22, 1907 article in question: "It is interesting to note that Massachusetts has taken the initiative against those motorists who drive while in an intoxicated condition by revoking their licenses....(They) rightly should be prevented by law against risking the lives of others. Motorists as a body, will commend this action by the Massachusetts legislature."

Early laws simply prohibited driving while intoxicated, requiring proof of a state of intoxication with no specific definition of what level of inebriation qualified.[25] The first generally accepted legal BAC limit was 0.15%.

In 1938, the American Medical Association created a "Committee to Study Problems of Motor Vehicle Accidents". At the same time, the National Safety Council set up a "Committee on Tests for Intoxication".

In the US, most of the laws and penalties were greatly enhanced starting in the late 1970s, and through the 1990s, largely due to pressure from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and leaders like Candy Lightner. Significantly, zero tolerance laws were enacted which criminalized driving a vehicle with 0.01% or 0.02% BAC for drivers under 21. This is true even in Puerto Rico, despite maintaining a legal drinking age of 18.[26]

On May 14, 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states lower the benchmark for determining when a driver is legally drunk from 0.08 blood-alcohol content to 0.05. The idea is part of an initiative to eliminate drunken driving, which accounts for about a third of all road deaths.[27]


In the United States the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 17,941 people died in 2006 in alcohol-related collisions, representing 40% of total traffic deaths in the US. Over the decade 2001-2010, this rate showed only a 3% variation, and no trend.[28] NHTSA states 275,000 were injured in alcohol-related accidents in 2003.[1] The Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that in 1996 local law enforcement agencies made 1,467,300 arrests nationwide for driving under the influence of alcohol, 1 out of every 10 arrests for all crimes in the U.S., compared to 1.9 million such arrests during the peak year in 1983, accounting for 1 out of every 80 licensed drivers in the U.S.[2][3] This represented a 220% increase in DUI arrests from 1970 to 1986, while the number of licensed drivers increased by just 42% in the same period.[29] The arrest rate for alcohol-related offenses among American Indians was more than double that for the total population during 1996, and almost 4 in 10 American Indians held in local jails had been charged with a public order offense, most commonly driving while intoxicated.[30] In 1997 an estimated 513,200 DUI offenders were under correctional supervision, down from 593,000 in 1990 and up from 270,100 in 1986.[31]

NHTSA defines fatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if they believe the driver, a passenger, or non-motorist (such as a pedestrian or pedal cyclist) had a BAC of 0.01% or greater. NHTSA defines nonfatal collisions as alcohol-related if the accident report indicates evidence of alcohol present. NHTSA specifically notes that alcohol-related does not necessarily mean a driver or non occupant was tested for alcohol and that the term does not indicate a collision or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol.[4] On average, about 60% of the BAC values are missing or unknown. To analyze what they believe is the complete data, statisticians simulate BAC information.[5] Drivers with a BAC of 0.10% are 6 to 12 times more likely to get into a fatal crash or injury than drivers with no alcohol.[6]

The NHTSA maintains a Digest of Impaired Driving and Select Beverage Control Laws.[32]

Typical DUI investigation and arrest

Following are common procedures when a law enforcement officer has reason to suspect a driver is intoxicated.

Reasonable suspicion to stop

There are several situations in which the officer will come into contact with a driver, some examples are:

  • The driver has been involved in an automobile accident; the officer has responded to the scene and is conducting an investigation.
  • The driver has been stopped at a sobriety checkpoint (also known as roadblocks).
  • The police have received a report, possibly from an anonymous citizen, that a described car has been driving erratically. The officer should verify the erratic driving before pulling the driver over. In some cases, the driver will no longer be in the vehicle.
  • The officer on patrol has observed erratic, suspicious driving, or a series of traffic infractions indicating the possibility that the driver may be impaired. This is by far the most common reason for stopping a suspect.
  • A police officer has stopped a vehicle for a lesser traffic offense, notices the signs of intoxication, and begins the DUI investigation.

The following list of DUI symptoms, from a publication issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (DOT HS-805-711),[33] is widely used in training officers to detect drunk drivers. After each symptom is a percentage figure which, according to NHTSA, indicates the statistical chances through research, that a driver is over the legal limit.

Turning with wide radius over 50%
Straddling center or lane marker 65%
Appearing to be drunk 60%
Almost striking object or vehicle 60%
Weaving 60%
Driving on other than designated roadway 55%
Swerving 55%
Slow speed (more than 10 mph below limit) 50%
Stopping (without cause) in traffic lane 50%
Drifting 50%
Following too closely 45%
Tires on center or land marker 45%
Braking erratically 45%
Driving into opposing or crossing traffic 45%
Signaling inconsistent with driving actions 40%
Stopping inappropriately (other than in lane) 35%
Turning abruptly or illegally 35%
Accelerating or decelerating rapidly 30%
Headlights off 30%

If the officer observes enough to have a reasonable suspicion to legally justify a further detention and investigation, they will ask the driver to step out of the vehicle.

Reasonable suspicion requires less evidence than probable cause, but more than a mere hunch. A rule of thumb is that reasonable suspicion requires 25% proof, and probable cause requires more than 50% statistical chance. Therefore, if there is probable cause for arrest for DWI, as suggested by the research and examples used above, then there is reasonable suspicion to stop a driver.


The officer will typically approach the driver's window and ask some preliminary questions. During this phase of the stop the officer will note if they detect any of the following indicators of intoxication

  • odor of an alcoholic beverage on the driver's breath or in the car generally
  • slurred speech in response to the questioning
  • watery, blood shot, or reddish eyes
  • flushed face
  • droopy eyelids
  • difficulty in understanding and responding intelligently to question
  • fumbling with his or her driver's license and registration
  • the plain-view presence of containers of alcoholic beverages in the vehicle.
  • admission of consumption of alcoholic beverage

If the officer observes enough to have a reasonable suspicion to legally justify a further detention and investigation, they will ask the driver to step out of the vehicle.

Field sobriety tests

Police administer a one-leg-stand test after a crash.

One of the most controversial aspects of a DUI stop is the field sobriety test (FSTs). The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has developed a model system for managing Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) training. They have published numerous training manuals associated with FSTs. As a result of the NHTSA studies, the walk-and-turn test was determined to be 68% accurate, and the one-leg stand test is only 65% accurate when administered to people within the study parameters. The tests were not validated for people with medical conditions, injuries, 65 years or older, and 50 pounds or greater overweight. The officer will administer one or more field sobriety tests. FSTs are "divided attention tests" that test the suspect's ability to perform the type of mental and physical multitasking that is required to operate an automobile. However, these tests can be problematic for people with nonobvious disabilities affecting proprioception, such as Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The three validated tests by NHTSA are:

  • horizontal gaze nystagmus test, which involves following an object with the eyes (such as a pen) to determine characteristic eye movement reaction.[34]
  • walk-and-turn (heel-to-toe in a straight line). This test is designed to measure a person's ability to follow directions and remember a series of steps while dividing attention between physical and mental tasks.
  • one-leg-stand.

Alternative tests, which have not been scientifically validated, include:

  • modified-position-of-attention (feet together, head back, eyes closed for thirty seconds; also known as the Romberg test).
  • finger-to-nose (tip head back, eyes closed, touch the tip of nose with tip of index finger).
  • recite part of the alphabet
  • (finger count) touch each finger of hand to thumb counting with each touch (1, 2, 3, 4, 4, 3, 2, 1).
  • count backwards from a number ending in a number other than 5 or 0 and stopping at a number ending other than 5 or 0. The series of numbers should be more than 15.
  • breathe into a "portable or preliminary breath tester" or PBT.

Although most law enforcement agencies continue to use a variety of these FSTs, increasingly a 3-test battery of standardized field sobriety tests (SFSTs) is being adopted. The NHTSA-approved battery of tests consists of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, the walk-and-turn test, and the one-leg-stand. In some states, such as Ohio, only the standardized tests will be admitted into evidence, provided they were administered and objectively scored "in substantial compliance" with NHTSA standards (ORC 4511.19(D)(4)(b)).

According to original studies conducted by NHTSA, these tests are not designed to detect impairment, but rather give a probability that a driver is at or above a 0.08% BAC. However, studies throw doubt on the tests' usefulness in helping an officer to judge either. In 1991, Dr. Spurgeon Cole of Clemson University conducted a study of the accuracy of FSTs. His staff videotaped people performing six common field sobriety tests, then showed the tapes to 14 police officers and asked them to decide whether the suspects had "had too much to drink and drive" (sic). The blood-alcohol concentration of each of the 21 DUI subjects was 0.00, unknown to the officers. The result: the officers gave their opinion that 46% of these innocent people were too drunk to be able to drive. This study showed the possible inaccuracy of FSTs.[35]

An increasingly used field sobriety test involves having the suspect breathe into a small, handheld breath testing device. Called variously a PAS ("preliminary alcohol screening") or PBT ("preliminary breath test"), the units are small, inexpensive versions of the larger, more sophisticated instruments at the police stations, the EBTs ("evidentiary breath test"). Whereas the EBTs usually employ infrared spectroscopy, the PAS units use a relatively simple electrochemical (fuel cell) technology. Their purpose, along with other FSTs, is to assist the officer in determining probable cause for arrest. Although, because of their relative inaccuracy, they were never intended to be used in court for proving actual blood-alcohol concentration, some courts have begun to admit them as evidence of BAC.


Critics of standardized field sobriety tests often question the statistical evidence behind them, and the ability of the officers to administer the tests and actually judge for impairments related to alcohol. According to Barone, one study involved completely sober individuals who were asked to perform the standardized field sobriety tests, and their performances were videotaped. “After viewing the 21 videos of sober individuals taking the standardized field tests, the police officers’ believed that forty-six percent of the individuals had ‘too much to drink’”.[36] It should not be out of the question for the standardized field sobriety tests to be re-examined for reliability and validity. A standardized test that claims to have scientific support should be able to be repeated. Along with that, the standardized field sobriety tests do not have a specific standard for grading, and it is left up to the discretion of the officer. Humans make mistakes. The NHTSA’s 1977 study had an error rate of 47 percent, and the 1981 study had an error rate of 32 percent, which are unusually high for a scientific study.[37]

One of the main ethical concerns of field sobriety tests is that judgment is left up to the discretion of the police officer. An officer may have some bias towards a suspect, and judge their test more critically than necessary. Along with that, it is almost impossible to tell whether or not a police officer has used proper procedures for administering the field sobriety test when a case is brought to court. The original research conducted by the NHTSA, along with following research of field sobriety tests is often disputed because of the manner in which they were conducted and the conclusions that were supposedly reached. “The reports for all three studies issued by NHTSA are lacking much of the material and analysis expected in a scientific paper, and none have been published in peer-reviewed journals” (Rubenzer 2011). Furthermore, a specific scale for signs of impairment due to alcohol has never been reached. This raises another problem, which is the fact that alcoholics have a much higher tolerance than the normal alcohol user. When being tested, they may be able to pass because they do not have the normal signs of alcohol impairment.

Walk-and-Turn Test

Specifically, the walk and turn test is composed of two phases, including the instruction phase and walking phase. During the test, the individual is directed to take nine steps along a straight line. The individual is supposed to walk heel to toe, and while looking down at a real or imaginary line, count the steps out loud. Making the test even more awkward, the arms must remain at their side. Reaching the ending point, the individual must turn around on one foot and return to the starting point. There are seven indicators of impairment that the police officer looks for: (1)Whether you are unable to maintain your balance while listening to the officer’s instructions; (2) whether you begin walking before the officer has completed the instructions; (3) whether you stop while walking in order to regain your balance; (4) whether you actually touch your feet heel-to-tow; (5) whether you use your arms to maintain your balance; (6) whether you lose your balance while turning; (7) whether you take an incorrect number of steps.[38]

One of the main problems with the walk and turn test is that some of the signs of alcohol impairment may stem from other physical problems. Along with that, there are other signs of physical impairment that can stem from various causes, including fatigue, an injury or illness, and nervousness. Those who are physically inactive, elderly, or obese may have trouble completing the walk and turn test without flaw. The NTSA used to say that those who are 50 pounds or more overweight may have difficulty performing the test, and that the suspect must walk along a real line. “Later NHTSA manuals removed the weight comment, and also inserted the phrase ‘imaginary line’ at the instruction phase, even though original research always used a visible line”.[36] The fact that officers are no longer required to provide a line for the suspect to walk along may affect the outcome of the test, and often adds to the scrutiny received from critics.

Probable cause to arrest

If the officer has sufficient probable cause that the suspect has been driving under the influence of alcohol, they will make the arrest, handcuff the suspect and transport them to the police station. En route, the officer may advise them of their Miranda rights and their legal implied consent obligation to submit to an evidentiary chemical test of blood, breath or possibly urine.

Laws relating to what exactly constitutes probable cause vary from state to state. In California it is a refutable presumption that a person with a BAC of 0.08% or higher is driving under the influence. However, section 23610(a)(2) of the California Vehicle Code states that driving with a BAC between 0.05% and 0.08% "shall not give rise to any presumption that the person was or was not under the influence of an alcoholic beverage".[39]

Chemical test

At the police station, the arrestee will be offered a chemical test of breath, blood or, much less frequently, urine. Breath test results are usually available immediately; urine and blood samples are sent to a lab for later analysis to determine the BAC or possible presence of drugs.

Some commentators, such as Brown University's Jacob Appel, have criticized the role of medical personnel in this process. According to Appel, "If physicians acquiesce today in the removal of a resistant patient's blood, soon they may be called upon to pump the contents of an unwilling patient's stomach or even to perform involuntary surgery to retrieve an evidential bullet".[40]

While chemical tests are used to determine the driver's BAC, they do not determine the driver's level of impairment. However, state laws usually provide for a rebuttable legal presumption of intoxication at a BAC of 0.08% or higher (see blood alcohol test assumptions).

Booking and charging

If it is determined after arrest that the person's BAC is not at or above the legal limit of 0.08%, they will probably be released without any charges. One may, however, still be charged with driving under the influence of alcohol on the basis of driving symptoms, observed impairment, admissions or performance on the field sobriety tests. And if there is suspicion of drug usage, a blood or urine test is likely, or at least the testimony of a specially trained officer called a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE). Assuming sufficient evidence of impaired driving from drugs, the arrested may face charges of driving under the influence of drugs or the combined influence of alcohol and drugs.

Most of the time, the driver will either be kept in a holding cell (sometimes referred to as the "drunk tank") until they are deemed sober enough to be released on bail or on his "own recognizance" ("O.R."). A date to appear in court for an arraignment will be given to them. If they cannot make bail or is not granted O.R., they will be kept in jail to wait for the arraignment on remand.


Drunk driving is a public health concern in the United States, and reducing its frequency may require an integrated community-based approach utilizing sanctions and treatments.[41] Several intervention programs have been developed, such as the Paradigm Developmental Model of Treatment (PDMT), a program encouraging a paradigm shift in the offender's view of oneself and the world.[42]

The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism suggests environmental interventions to help eliminate drinking and driving all together. To date, the most successful law in combating drinking and driving has been raising the minimum drinking age to 21 (NIAAA, 2011). NHTSA estimates that a legal drinking age of 21 saves 700 to 1,000 lives annually. Since 1976, these laws have prevented more than 21,000 traffic deaths. Other suggestions include raising taxes, enacting zero-tolerance laws, stepping up enforcement, school-based prevention programs, and family based prevention programs (NIAAA).

International comparisons

In countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia drunk driving and deaths caused by drunk driving are considerably lower than in the USA. Drunk driving deaths in the UK (population 61 million, 31 million cars) were 380 in 2010 (12% of all fatal accidents).[43][44] In California (population 36 million, 32 million cars) there were 1,489 deaths from traffic accidents related to "alcohol or other drugs" in 2007 (22% of all fatal accidents).[45][46] Alcohol consumption per capita in the UK and Australia is higher than in the USA and the legal age for drinking lower.[47]

Research in the United Kingdom has shown that the danger group for drunk driving is young men in their early 20s rather than teenagers.[48] It is not uncommon for police forces in Australia to randomly stop motorists and submit them to a Random breath test. This test involves speaking or blowing into a hand held device to give a reading. Refusing a roadside test is an offense, and is subject to the same penalty as high range drunk driving. This detection method is not employed in the UK, and it is not an offence for a fully licenced driver to drive with a BAC of less than 0.08% (Australia has a limit of 0.05%). Also in Australia it is an offence for any person driving on Learner or probationary ('P1 or P2') plates (aged under 20years) to drive with any alcohol at all in their system. The BAC must be 0.00% and still remains under 0.05% for an "instructing a learner".

Unlike the USA, these countries do not see restricting access to alcohol as having any useful role to play in reducing drunk driving. Their experience is that random breath tests, severe penalties, including imprisonment for a first offense (in UK), combined with blanket public service broadcasting are a more effective strategy.[49]

Also, Australian and British Law do not recognize the crime of DUI Manslaughter and sentences for causing death by drunk driving are much lower than the USA. In the UK, a judge makes a sentencing decision based on the amount of alcohol present. This can lead to imprisonment for a first offence. [50][51]

In Germany, a legal limit of 0.05% lowers to 0.03% if a driver is found to be at fault in a traffic accident. 0.00% is the standard for those who are under 21 years of age.[52]

See also


  1. ^ a b DOT HS 809775, a.k.a. Traffic Safety Facts 2003
  2. ^ a b Four in Ten Criminal Offenders Report Alcohol as a Factor in Violence: But Alcohol-Related Deaths and Consumption in Decline, April 5, 1998, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
  3. ^ a b McGovern, Thomas F.; White, William L. (2003). Alcohol Problems in the United States: Twenty Years of Treatment Perspective. Routledge. p. 86.  
  4. ^ a b Traffic Safety Facts 2004
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  17. ^ Oregon DMV SR-22 Information
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  19. ^ "Minnesota's Whiskey Plates". Retrieved 2014-01-26. 
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  22. ^ California Vehicle Code §§ 14600 et seq.
  23. ^ California Vehicle Code §§ 23592 et seq.
  24. ^ "The Cost Of A DUI". 
  25. ^ H. Laurence Ross; Joseph R. Gusfield (1994). Confronting Drunk Driving. Yale University Press.  
  26. ^ Puerto Rico OKs one lowest drunk-driving limits
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  29. ^ Yost, Pete (March 1, 1988). "Drunken-driving arrests up 220 percent since 1970".  
  30. ^ American Indians are Violent Crime Victims at Double the Rate of General Population, February 19, 1999, United States Bureau of Justice Statistics
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  32. ^ NHTSA Digest of Impaired Driving and Select Beverage Control Laws
  33. ^ The Visual Detection of DWI Motorists
  34. ^ NTSA website page on nystagmus.
  35. ^ Cole and Nowaczyk, "Field Sobriety Tests: Are they Designed for Failure?", 79 Perceptual and Motor Skills Journal 99 (1994).
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  39. ^ California Vehicle Code, Section 23610
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  44. ^ David Millward (2010-04-07). "Number of cars declines for the first time since Second World War". London: Telegraph. 
  45. ^ Driving Under-the-Influence (DUI) Statistics, California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs
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Further reading

  • Barron H. Lerner, One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.
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