Zero Tolerance and Alcohol Laws

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Zero tolerance is the practice of adopting laws or policies that call for mandatory enforcement of violations without regard to severity, intent, or extenuating circumstances.

Fundamentally, zero tolerance laws and policies impose a penalty or consequence on all violations and infractions without any subjective judgment of the action or behavior.

As it pertains to driving under the influence, zero tolerance refers to laws that make it illegal for persons under age 21 to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system.

Prior to zero tolerance laws, most states had drunk driving laws that established legal limits for blood-alcohol content that applied to all drivers regardless of age.

If a teenage driver was drinking and driving, but had a BAC of under 0.08, for example, they were not guilty of driving under the influence. Depending on state law, they may be guilty of consuming or being in possession of alcohol underage, but not guilty of DUI.

History of Zero Tolerance Laws

Because drivers under the age of 21 are more likely to be involved in fatal vehicular crashes if they have been drinking than people over 21, the U.S. Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984 that forced states to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

By 1988, all 50 states had raised the legal drinking age to 21, and that laid the groundwork for the passage of zero tolerance laws.

Illegal to Drink, Illegal to Drive

The idea behind zero-tolerance laws is because it is illegal for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol, it should, therefore, be illegal for them to operate a vehicle while drinking any amount of alcohol.

All 50 states have now passed zero-tolerance laws that penalize underage drinkers for operating a motor vehicle with BAC levels as low as .01 or .02. In fact, in many states, an underage drinker can be charged with a DUI with a BAC level of .00, meaning that any detectable amount of alcohol, no matter how small, is illegal.

Zero Tolerance for Other Situations

Zero tolerance can apply to other situations as well. Some states have zero-tolerance laws regarding riding in a vehicle with an open container. Regardless of how the opened alcohol container got there, how long it has been there, or who it belongs to, the law enforcement officer is compelled to take action if they observe an open container in the vehicle.

In the 1990s, many school districts passed zero-tolerance policies regarding weapons and drugs. Students could be expelled or suspended from school for having any type of recreational drug, including alcohol and marijuana. However, research suggests the policies were ineffective in curbing problematic behavior. Furthermore, there were racial disparities in how children were disciplined, with Black children disproportionately affected by these rules. As such, many of these zero-tolerance policies have been tempered or rescinded, but some districts still have them in place.

Of course, in reality, there are going to arise situations that do have extenuating circumstances, so blanket enforcement of zero-tolerance policies has drawn considerable criticism and has produced some outrageous incidents of unjust punishment.

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  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Maps & charts: Youth (underage operators of noncommercial motor vehicles). Updated January 1, 2020.

  2. Federal Trade Commission. 21 is the legal drinking age. Updated September 2013.

  3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles.

  4. Curran FC. Estimating the effect of state zero tolerance laws on exclusionary discipline, racial discipline gaps, and student behavior. Edu Eval Pol Anal. 2016;38(4):647-668. doi:10.3102/0162373716652728