Over the past few decades, both laws and attitudes surrounding drinking and driving have shifted dramatically in the United States. While the maximum allowable blood alcohol limit in the country is regulated at a federal level, there are many differences between states in terms of penalties.
Each state takes a slightly different approach to enforcing and punishing drunk driving laws, and we have put together this helpful guide to help you get a better idea of the different legal alcohol limits in varying parts of the United States.
Alcohol Limit in the United States
The maximum allowable blood alcohol content while operating a motor vehicle in the United States is 0.08 percent. For most people, it takes at least two to three drinks to reach this threshold and is the blood alcohol level that is generally considered to be the line between “buzzed” and impaired.
Up until the 1980s, the legal blood alcohol limit to operate a car was somewhere around 0.1 percent in most areas of the United States. Alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities were significant, and it was determined that the limit needed to be lowered to 0.08 percent.
Utah was the first state to adopt the new blood alcohol limit of 0.08 percent in the year 1983, and it took just over two decades for the other 49 states to follow suit. Some states were much more hesitant and later to the adoption of the new limit, and all 50 states finally changed their drunk driving laws in the year 2004.
One of the major factors that led to these last states finally getting on board was the fact that the federal government threatened to withhold funding from states that failed to adopt the new policy. Today, 0.08 is the blood alcohol limit in all 50 states, though there are individual state laws that differ regarding the enforcement and punishments around drinking and driving.
DUI Penalties in Different States
While the rule concerning the maximum allowable blood alcohol limit for driving is now uniform across all 50 states, there are many differences in the ways different states penalize drunk drivers. Some states are more lenient, while others are known for extremely high fines and intricate alcohol monitoring systems.
It should also be noted that in the year 2019, Utah became the first and only state in the USA to impose a lower BAC level than the national limit. The state lowered the maximum allowable percentage to just 0.05 percent, which puts some people above the legal limit of around two drinks.
States like California and Tennessee are well known for having some of the highest fines pertaining to DUIs in the country. These states also impose mandatory jail time for drunk drivers, with longer sentences generally given to those with higher blood alcohol content.
In many states, there are more involved measures to dissuade repeat DUI offenders from operating a vehicle while under the influence. These include breathalyzers that are hardwired to the ignition systems in cars, requiring the driver to re-test periodically while driving.
In other instances, states may impose a complete ban on drinking for repeat DUI offenders in lieu of more serious punishments like jail time. Alcohol monitoring wristbands or ankle bracelets are used, both of which are designed to alert authorities if any alcohol is detected at all.
Some states will temporarily revoke or suspend an offender’s driver’s license, and others are known for permanent license revocation when it comes to repeat offenders. All of these measures were put in place to dissuade drunk driving, and states with harsher penalties have proven to reduce drunk driving more effectively.
There are also certain states that have developed repetitions for being “more lenient” than others when it comes to DUI penalties, though this is a relative term. Even in states with less strict DUI penalties, fines, and lawyer costs can add up to cost thousands of dollars.
States like Ohio and Kentucky have developed a reputation for being “less strict” when it comes to how heavily they punish offenders. While license suspension and fines are both given for first-time DUI offenders, there are no mandatory jail sentences in these areas, even for multiple-time offenders.
There are currently three different states that impose a mandatory 10 days of jail time for first-time DUI offenders. Arizona, Georgia, and Oklahoma all enforce these mandatory minimums, making them three of the toughest states in the US when it comes to DUI penalty enforcement.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are states that are known for having fairly low fines and punishments for DUIs compared to the rest of the country. States like North and South Dakota, along with Idaho and Michigan all lack mandatory jail sentences for DUI offenders, and the fines and license suspension are much less heavy compared to many other states.
Zero Tolerance Limits
Zero Tolerance limits apply to drivers under the age of 21, and while the term “zero tolerance” may seem self-explanatory to some, various states define the term in different ways. In some areas, 0.0 alcohol is the only allowable level for minors, while others allow for a 0.02 blood alcohol content.
Around the same time that the blood alcohol limit for drinking and driving was changed to .08 in the United States, laws were also put into effect regarding drivers under the age of 21. A federal zero-tolerance policy was put into place, stating that minors were only allowed to drive with a BAC of 0.2 or lower.
This threshold of 0.02% is to account for trace amounts of alcohol that may be present in a person’s system. This small percentage amount is there to address concerns about the potential for false positive results caused by mouthwash or other hygiene products.
At the time of writing this article, 42 states have their “zero tolerance” thresholds set at .02 BAC, while the remaining eight either enforce .01 or 0.0 BAC limits for minors. It should also be noted that the penalties for minors in many states are as severe or more heavy compared to the penalties for adults.
Enhanced Penalty Limits
Enhanced penalties are commonplace for more serious DUI offenses where the driver is caught with an extremely high blood alcohol content. These stronger penalties are meant to punish some of the worst offenders who pose the biggest risk to other drivers and pedestrians with reckless driving.
One of the most common thresholds for increased penalties across the 50 states is the 0.15 percent mark. At anything higher than 0.15 percent BAC, the driver is either nearly equal to or exceeding double the legal limit of .08 percent.
At this level, a driver is considered to be severely impaired, thus putting other drivers and pedestrians at a much higher risk by being on the road. These enhanced penalties range from increased fines to much heavier license suspensions or revocations.
While the majority of states have enhanced penalty limits set somewhere between 0.15 and 0.17 percent, there are a few notable exceptions that differ from the pack when it comes to these policies.
Idaho, Massachusetts, and Tennessee all have enhanced penalty limits set at 0.2 BAC, which is much higher compared to the national average. Other states like Alabama, Vermont, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, and Oregon do not have a specifically stated threshold when it comes to enhanced penalties on severe DUIs.
Legal Alcohol Limits – Final Thoughts
Drinking and driving is no joke, and many laws have been put into place over the years to try and combat this dangerous and reckless act. In the 1980s, the United States put federal laws into place which lowered the maximum BAC threshold from 0.01 to 0.08. While all states now comply with this number, there are major differences in terms of the way DUIs are punished from state to state.
There are also different policies between states when it comes to “zero tolerance policies” for drivers under the age of 21, as well as enhanced penalty thresholds for more serious DUI offenses.
Regardless of which state you live in, drinking and driving is never a good idea, and one of the most important parts of drinking responsibly is planning ahead with a sober driver or rideshare service to get you home safely.