Penalties for Driving Drunk Are Increasingly Severe

drunk man behind the wheel
Christopher Badzioch / Getty Images

Every day drivers are arrested for driving under the influence, or driving while intoxicated, as law enforcement agencies continue to crack down on these dangerous offenders. For many of these drivers, it will not be their first DUI offense.

What fate awaits these drunk drivers? You may be surprised to find that penalties for DUI, even the first offense, have grown much steeper over time. Due to the efforts of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), hundreds of new DUI laws have been passed nationwide.

Stricter Laws and Penalties for DUI

  • All states have adopted 21 as the legal drinking age.
  • Forty-two 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 lowered the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit from .10 g/dL to .08 g/dL or below for adults.
  • All states have passed Zero Tolerance laws which prohibit drivers under 21 from having any measurable amount of alcohol in their blood system.
  • There are increased penalties 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.
  • A push is on for ignition interlock laws, in which an individual is required to blow into a device and prove they are not drunk before the car will start. All states require an ignition interlock for at least some offenders, and 29 states mandate ignition interlock for all offenders.

Facing the Consequences

Although laws differ from state to state, the consequences of being charged with DUI have increased. 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 often mandated by state law. In some states, even first offenders may be facing lengthy license suspensions and a night in jail.

Most states consider the third or fourth DUI to be a felony. In certain states, people with felonies lose many of their civil rights, like being able to vote or own a weapon, as well as losing their driver's license permanently or for many, many years.

Getting Your License Back

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 their dependence on alcohol.

Assessment of Drinking Patterns

In most states, the certified counselor now has the power to adjudicate the offender into a medical treatment, counseling program, or 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous. The offender does not have to follow the guidelines outlined by the counselor, but it's the only way they will ever regain their driving privileges.

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

More Costs and Fees to Consider

All of this costs 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.

On top of all these penalties, drunk driving sentences can be enhanced to even greater levels in some states if one's BAC level passes a certain threshold.

Holding Drivers Responsible

The justice system is holding drunk drivers accountable for the damage they do to 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 involves a Victim Impact Panel. This 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. Research suggests Victim Impact Panels can reduce the odds of drunk driving recidivism for up to two years.

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

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Age 21 minimum legal drinking age.

  2. Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. National Drunk Driving Statistics Map.

  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drunk driving.

  4. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute. Zero tolerance laws.

  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Is legally mandated treatment effective?.

  6. National Conference of State Legislatures. Increased penalties for high blood alcohol content.

  7. Joyce S, Thompson KM. Do Victim Impact Panels reduce drunk driving recidivism?. Restor Justice. 2017;5(2):251-266. doi:10.1080/20504721.2017.1343418

By Buddy T
Buddy T is an anonymous writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism.