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Penalties for Driving Drunk

Penalties For the Drunk Driver Are Get Stiffer


Updated June 20, 2014

Drunk Driving Arrests
Doug Menuez Collection/Photodisc/Getty Images
Everyday drivers are arrested for driving under the influence, or driving while intoxicated, as law enforcement agencies continue to crackdown on these dangerous offenders. For many of these drivers, it will not be their first DUI offense.

So, what fate awaits these drunk drivers? They may be surprised to find that penalties for DUI, even the first offense, have been increased since they last checked. Due to the efforts of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), hundreds of new DUI laws have been passed nationwide since 1980.

All states have adopted 21 as the legal drinking age. Two-thirds of the states have now passed Administrative License Revocation (ALR) laws, which allow the arresting officer to take the license of drivers who fail or refuse to take a breath test.

All states have now lowered the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit from .10 to .08 percent for adults, and all states have passed Zero Tolerance laws which prohibit drivers under 21 from having any measurable amount of alcohol in their blood system.

Moreover, the penalties have increased for drinking and driving, especially for repeat offenders. Many state legislatures have passed laws requiring mandatory jail time for repeat DUI convictions. The fines have gotten larger, the length of license suspension has gotten longer and getting a "hardship" license just to go back and forth to work is getting more difficult.

Facing the Consequences

Although laws differ from state to state, here's a typical routine facing repeat offenders:

Getting an attorney in hopes of getting a reduced sentence or pleading to a reduced charge is a waste of time and money in many states. The penalties that the judge must impose are mandated by state law. In some states, even first offenders may be facing lengthy license suspensions and a weekend in jail.

Many states have passed Habitual Violator laws, which provide felony penalties for three DUI convictions. These offenders lose many of their civil rights -- like being able to vote or own a weapon -- as well as their driver's license permanently or for many, many years.

In order to get that license back, most states now require that offenders complete some form of DUI school or education and assessment program, but it has become a lot more involved than just sitting in class several hours and passing a written test.

Now the offender must first go through an assessment interview with a professional counselor before it is decided what steps must be completed before the driver's license is reinstated. Typically, the offender is given a set of questions that are designed to determine the extent of his "drinking problem."

Assessment of Drinking Patterns

In most states, the certified counselor now has the power to adjudicate the offender into Alcoholic Anonymous or a medical treatment or counseling program. The offender does not have to follow the guidelines outlined by the counselor, but it's the only way he will ever regain his driving privileges.

The counselor, based on his assessment of the drunk driver, can mandate attendance at as few as three or four A.A. meetings or, for repeat offenders, 90 meetings in 90 days, or a 28-day residential treatment program, detoxification, or other medical treatment.

All of this cost time and money or both -- on top of the fines and probation fees the offender must pay. But that is not the only cost involved. Many states also require additional insurance coverage before returning driving privileges to DUI offenders, and that can run into serious money. Then there is the fee most states charge for re-issuing a driver's license.

All totaled, a DUI conviction can be expensive, especially a second or third offense. The costs can be even greater for those who receive a DUI as the result of a traffic "accident." Drivers who were drinking at the time are finding that the courts are placing more of the liability for damages on them, regardless of the circumstances of the traffic incident. See: 10 Costly Fines of Drunk Driving.

On top of all these penalties, drunk driving sentences can can be enhanced to even greater levels under certain circumstances. To find out if your sentence could be enhanced, take the DUI Sentenced Enhancement Quiz.

Holding Drivers Responsible

The justice system is holding drunk drivers accountable for the damage they do those who are killed or injured on the highways because the other driver was drinking. The monetary liabilities for such incidents can run into the millions, not to mention the criminal penalties.

In some areas, part of the DUI school curriculum puts offenders face to face with victims, who tell their painful stories of how a drunk driver changed their lives forever. The idea is that personalizing the pain that drinking and driving can cause might make the offender stop and think before getting behind the wheel.

Simply stated, society is trying to emphasize that drinking and driving is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.


Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "Alcohol Related Laws." 2007.

Education Resource Information Center. An Evaluation of First Offender Driver Alcohol Education Models: 40 Hours versus 15 Hours. July 1989.

David J Deyoung. An evaluation of the effectiveness of alcohol treatment, driver license actions and jail terms in reducing drunk driving recidivism in California. Addiction 92 (8), 989–998.

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