Drunk Driving – Risks, Consequences & Punishments

Drinking and driving is also known as drinking under the influence (DUI) and alcohol-impaired driving. It refers to when an individual operates any motor vehicle, including a motorcycle, with at least 0.08% of blood alcohol content (BAC). It is considered an illegal action and can have serious consequences.1, 2

On average, alcohol-impaired drivers are involved in vehicle crashes that kill one person every 45 minutes. This means that approximately 32 people die in drunk-driving crashes in the United States every day.3

What Is the Drunk Driving Statistics in the US?

In 2020, motor vehicle traffic crashes that involved at least one alcohol-impaired driver resulted in 11,654 fatalities. This is a total of 30% of all traffic deaths in the US for that year.3

The number of deaths in crashes that involved alcohol-impaired drivers increased by 14.3% from 2019 to 2020. In the past 10 years, this number increased from 9,865 in 2011 to 11,654 in 2020. The total of fatalities in 2020 involved 7,281 drivers who were alcohol-impaired, 1,543 passengers who were riding with alcohol-impaired drivers, 1,605 occupants of other vehicles, and 1,225 nonoccupants.3

The percentage of male drunk drivers who were involved in crashes with fatal outcomes was 22%, while there was 16% of female drunk drivers. This means that there were 4 male alcohol-impaired drivers for every female driver.3

What Is Drunk Driving?

Drunk driving involves operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. Any fatal crash that involves a driver with a BAC of 0.08% or higher is considered an alcohol-impaired-driving crash and it is considered a serious crime.1

Law refers to drunk driving as driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI). Some states only charge either DWI or DUI offenses and the terms can be used interchangeably. However, some states charge both offenses. In these states, DUI refers to alcohol impairment while DWI refers to impairment by prescribed or recreational drugs. While some jurisdictions prohibit any form of impaired driving across the entire state, others limit it to public roadways and areas that are open to the public.4

Drivers can undergo chemical testing of their blood, breath, or urine whenever a law enforcement officer suspects them of being under the influence of alcohol. While a driver can refuse chemical testing, it can result in an automatic driving license forfeiture in most jurisdictions. While DUI and/or DWI charges are pursued after a blood test or breathalyzer indicates a BAC of 0.08% or higher, some states may do so at lower levels when the driver is under the legal drinking age.4

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Driving Ability?

Drinking alcohol reduces your brain functions and impairs abilities that are essential for safely operating a vehicle. It impairs reasoning, thinking, and muscle coordination. The negative effects on an individual’s central nervous system increase with the rise of alcohol levels in their blood. The walls of the small intestine and the stomach directly absorb the substance into the bloodstream where it accumulates until it is metabolized by the liver.5

At blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 grams per deciliter, the risk of a car crash increases exponentially. Due to this risk, drunk driving with a BAC of 0.08% or higher is illegal in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, except in Utah where the limit is 0.05%.5

However, a person’s driving ability can be affected even by a small amount of alcohol. In 2020, 2,041 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes where a driver’s BAC was between 0.01% and 0.07%.5

Typical effects that blood alcohol concentration can have on a person’s concentration and driving ability include:5

  • BAC of 0.02% may cause altered mood, slight body warmth, relaxation, moderate loss of judgment; decline in visual functions and ability to perform two tasks simultaneously.
  • BAC of 0.05% may cause lowered alertness, impaired judgment, loss of small-muscle control, exaggerated behavior; reduced response to emergency driving situations, difficulty steering, reduced ability to track moving objects, and reduced coordination. 
  • BAC of 0.08% may cause poor muscle coordination, difficulty detecting danger, impaired judgment, reasoning, memory, and self-control; impaired perception, reduced capability of information processing, loss of short-term memory, and reduced concentration and speed control.
  • BAC of 0.10% may cause deterioration of control and reaction time, poor coordination, slowed thinking, slurred speech; reduced ability to brake appropriately and to maintain lane position.
  • BAC of 0.15% may cause vomiting, decreased muscle control, major balance loss;  significant impairment in attention to driving task, vehicle control, and in necessary auditory and visual information processing.

Alcohol reduces your ability to judge speed, distance, and the movement of other vehicles. With increasing impairment in driving abilities, you could wander from lane to lane, drift across the centerline, or run off the roadway.6

What Are the Signs of a Drunk Driver?

The following signs can help you determine if an individual who is driving is drunk:7

  • Zig-zagging or weaving across the road.
  • Quick deceleration or acceleration.  
  • Tailgating.
  • Driving off the road that is designated for vehicles.
  • Erratic braking or stopping without cause.
  • Drifting in and out of lanes.
  • Slowed response to traffic signals.
  • Signaling that is not consistent with driving actions.
  • Turning illegally or abruptly.
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road and into opposing traffic.
  • Changing direction abruptly.

What Are the Consequences of Drunk Driving?

Crashes are more likely to result in injury or death when alcohol is involved. Studies show that each 0.02% increase in an individual’s BAC nearly doubles the risk of a single-vehicle fatal crash.8 

Operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol is a dangerous crime. Charges for drunk driving span from misdemeanors to felony offenses. Penalties can involve fines, jail time, and license revocation. For a first-time offender, the cost can go up to $10,000 in legal fees and fines.5

When an individual is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, their driving license will be revoked or suspended and they:9

  • Must complete a DUI program. 
  • Must pay any applicable license restriction or reissue fees.
  • May be ordered to install an ignition interlock device (IID) on their vehicle.
  • May need to pay a fine.
  • May be sentenced to up to six months of jail time.
  • Their vehicle may be impounded by law enforcement and they may have to pay a storage fee.
  • In case they have caused death or serious injury while driving under the influence of alcohol, they may face lawsuits. 

Any DUI conviction remains on a person’s driving record for 10 years. If a person gets DUIs during that period, they may be given additional penalties.9

Who Is Most Likely to Drink and Drive?

Certain groups of people are more at risk for drunk driving and associated crashes and deaths. These groups include:10

  • Teen drivers and passengers. Any amount of alcohol taken before driving increases the risk of crash among teen drivers. The risk is much higher than with older drivers with the same BAC, even when the BAC is below the legal limit.
  • Young adult drivers. Among drivers who were involved in crashes with fatal outcomes in 2020, the percentage of those who were under the influence of alcohol was highest among individuals 21-24 years old (26%) and 25-34 years old (26%).
  • Men. Drunk driving is more common among men. In 2020, there were 22% of male drivers under the influence of alcohol who were involved in fatal crashes compared with 16% of female drivers. Self-reported alcohol-impaired driving is also higher among men than women.
  • Motorcycle drivers. Drivers of motorcycles drive under the influence more often than drivers of other vehicles. In 2020, there were 27% of alcohol-impaired motorcyclists who were involved in fatal crashes, while the percentage of passenger car drivers was 23%.
  • Drivers who do not always wear a seat belt. It is more common for individuals who engage in drunk driving to now always wear a seat belt. As much as 66% of killed alcohol-impaired drivers were not wearing a seat belt.
  • Drivers with prior DUI convictions. The number of drivers who were previously convicted of driving under the influence was four times higher among drunk driving individuals involved in fatal crashes than among those with zero BAC in their system in 2020.

What Are the Drunk Driving Laws in the US?

Implementing effective laws is essential for preventing crashes with fatal outcomes that result from drunk driving. These laws include:10,11

  • Actively enforcing and implementing lower BAC limits. While 49 states and the District of Columbia have a limit of 0.08%, Utah implemented a limit of 0.05% in 2018. In the first year, there was an 18% reduction in the motor vehicle crash death rate per mile driven.
  • Maintaining laws for minimum legal drinking age and zero tolerance laws for drivers under the age of 21.
  • Ordering alcohol ignition interlocks for all individuals convicted of DUI.
  • Implementing high-visibility saturation patrols and publicized sobriety checkpoints.

How to Prevent Drunk Driving?

There are different strategies and policies that may have different levels of impact on prevention and reduction of alcohol-impaired driving. Common strategies include:12

  • Publicized sobriety checkpoints. These checkpoints are located at highly visible locations where law enforcement officers can briefly stop all or certain vehicles to check a driver’s BAC. 
  • High-visibility saturation patrols. A large number of law enforcement officers patrol a particular area at locations and times when crashes involving drunk driving are more common.
  • Ignition interlocks. Interlocks measure a driver’s BAC on their breath and keep a vehicle from starting when the BAC is above a certain limit. The limit is typically 0.02%. These devices have a high success rate at preventing repeat offenses.

Frequently Asked Questions