Everything you need to know about driving under the influence
You may think drinking at a party and then driving home, even a short distance, isn’t a big deal. However, not only is driving under the influence (DUI) dangerous, but it’s also illegal in every state. The penalties for DUIs are vast, ranging from fines to community service to driver’s license suspension to imprisonment. While your best bet is to always drive sober, here’s essential information on DUIs.
A DUI offense is when a person has broken the law by driving over the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
Also known as a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS), blood alcohol level test, blood alcohol content, ethanol test or ethyl alcohol test, a BAC test measures the amount of alcohol in your system.
BAC tests can occur in two different ways:
Alcohol can stay in your blood for up to 12 hours after drinking.
To drive legally in the United States, you must have a BAC under 0.08 percent, the legal and medical limit of intoxication.1
|Level of intoxication||Blood alcohol concentration|
|At risk for serious complications||Above 0.40%|
For those under the age of 21, such as teen drivers, laws are even more strict when it comes to DUIs, with lower legal limits and harsher penalties.
Hopefully, you never get stopped for a DUI, but if you do, remember your legal rights.
If the driver is unable to do any of these tests, it’s an indication of intoxication.2 While you have the right to refuse the FST, you’ll then have to take the BAC test instead, so it’s not a “get out of jail free” card.
Whatever you do, if you get stopped for a suspected DUI, don’t make the following mistakes.
Of course, the best way to avoid a DUI conviction is to drive sober. However, if it’s too late for that, you can avoid a DUI conviction either by taking a plea bargain or employing a great DUI attorney with a strong defense. Whichever route you choose, take advantage of free consultations at multiple law firms to find a quality DUI attorney.
Pleading guilty to a less serious charge, such as reckless driving, may be able to reduce your DUI charge, a process known as charge bargaining. A charge bargain is most effective if it’s your first DUI offense, you have a clean or nearly clean criminal background or you had a low BAC at the time of the arrest. It’s also more likely to succeed if you’re over the age of 21 and did not cause an accident.
The other option is having a strong legal defense, such as:
Each state has different laws surrounding DUIs, including how long your license will be suspended for the first offense and penalties for the second, third and subsequent offenses. Find your state’s laws surrounding alcohol-impaired driving on the Governors Highway Safety Association website, linked in the citations below.5
Legal punishments are far from the only consequence of driving under the influence, but they can be severe.
Legal penalties can include jail time, fines, community service hours, license suspension and a DUI ignition interlock device — a breathalyzer that would test your BAC before you can start your car. If you cause a fatality, your legal consequences will be more extreme, but even on a first offense, you’ll likely face a license suspension at the very least.
The state may also require you to get an SR-22 form (proof you have minimum insurance) or, in Florida and Virginia, an FR-44 form (proof you have more than the minimum).
Finding affordable car insurance with an SR-22 or FR-44 is more difficult as it means you’re a high-risk driver, which raises your rates. When shopping the market, check out our recommendations for the best auto insurance with a DUI on your record.
Between fines, attorney and department of motor vehicle (DMV) fees, interlock devices and more, a DUI could end up costing you anywhere from $4,500 to $14,000, depending on the severity of the offense and the number of the offense.6 Keep in mind that car insurance won’t cover these costs as a DUI is considered to be reckless or negligent driving, so you’ll have to pay for these expenses out of pocket.
|Ignition interlock device||$500-$1,500|
For certain occupations, such as rideshare driver, school bus driver or commercial driver, a DUI conviction will prevent you from getting a job, as they require a clean criminal history. A DUI conviction could also result in a suspension of licenses for nurses, teachers, lawyers, doctors and pilots.
However, first-time DUI offenders who complete substance abuse programs should be able to get their DUI expunged from their record so it won’t show up in a criminal record or background check. Still, many job applications ask you if you’ve ever had any criminal convictions, so you may report it yourself, which could affect your chances of getting a job.7
In every state except Texas, Vermont, Kansas and Delaware, DUIs will disappear from your record after a certain number of years. After this point, the cost of your car insurance should return to normal.
|State||How long a DUI will stay on your driving record (in years)|
That said, DUIs do affect car insurance rates. As long as the DUI is on your record, insurance companies will view you as a substandard or high-risk driver who is more likely to file claims. To protect themselves against losses, insurance companies will charge you higher premiums preemptively.
Learning about DUIs can feel a bit like wading through alphabet soup. DUI, DWI, OUI, OWI — what’s the difference?
The two most common abbreviations states use are DUI and DWI. While DUI stands for driving under the influence, DWI stands for driving while intoxicated and is a more serious charge. A driver convicted of a DUI offense was less impaired than someone convicted of a DWI offense. However, not every state distinguishes between the two and some use DUI as meaning under the influence of drugs specifically.8
Some less commonly used abbreviations include the following:
What abbreviations does your state use? Find out below.
|State||Abbreviation for impaired driving charge|
|Arkansas||DWI/DUI (underage drivers with BACs under .08)|
Check out our roundup of drunk driving statistics to find out where DUIs are most common and who drives under the influence the most. Some particularly noteworthy stats to keep in mind include the following:
If you’ve been convicted of a DUI, check out our picks for the best high-risk auto insurance. While there’s no easy way to avoid rate hikes, you can save money by shopping the entire market for a substandard provider — a company that caters to high-risk drivers. Learn more about DUIs below.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s DWI detection participant manual for law enforcement officers, there are only three phases of DUI detection. They are as follows:
The best-case scenario for a first-time DUI is that you only have your license suspended for a certain period and have limited driving privileges during this time, such as commuting to work. Ideally, you won’t have to use an ignition interlock device and face a steep fine or have to take driver’s education classes.
The worst punishment for a DUI is imprisonment. However, this will usually only happen with repeat offenders or vehicular manslaughter.
Drunk driving charges can be dropped if you take a plea bargain or have a strong legal defense for your actions.
Blood Alcohol Level. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine. (2023).
Refusing a Field Sobriety Test in a DUI Stop. Justia. (2023).
Birchfield v. North Dakota – 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016). LexisNexis. (2016).
How to get a DUI dropped to reckless driving – Best 2 ways. Shouse California Law Group. (2022, Jan 21).
Alcohol Impaired Driving. Governors Highway Safety Association. (2023).
Learn the Costs of a DUI. DUI.org. (2023).
Can I Get a Job With a DUI Conviction on My Record? AllLaw. (2023).
DUI and DWI Overview. NOLO. (2023).
Drunk Driving. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2023).