Drinking & Driving

Regulations in the US

Drinking & Driving

Drunk driving is a serious problem in the US, where excessive alcohol is estimated to be a factor in some 40 per cent of all traffic fatalities. More than 1.8 million people are arrested for drunk driving each year, a small fraction of the millions who drive while under the influence of alcohol.

Random breath tests are permitted in some states, while in others police need a reason to stop a vehicle before they can ask you to take a breath test. Often a police officer tries to detect alcohol by sniffing the air and he may try to goad you into giving him a reason to demand a sobriety test.

A test may consist of reciting the alphabet or counting numbers, standing on one foot for a designated period, walking in a straight line, or touching the tip of your nose with an index finger with your eyes closed (this is serious!). Chemical tests can consist of a breath, blood, urine or saliva alcohol test, or a test for drugs (narcotics). If you have a choice, experts suggest that you request a urine test. A refusal to take a test usually results in your driving licence being automatically suspended or revoked, e.g. for six months or a year. In some states, there are periodic purges when road blocks are set up throughout a county or state and all drivers are given a breath test.

You’re no longer considered fit to drive when your breath contains 35 micrograms (mg) of alcohol per 100ml, or your blood contains 80mg of alcohol per 100ml or your urine 107mg per 100ml. In most states, you’re considered to be driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI) when your blood-alcohol content (BAC) or level is 0.1 per cent (it’s occasionally lower, e.g. 0.08 per cent or even 0.05 per cent for minors).

In some states, if your BAC is above a certain level, e.g. between 0.05 and 0.09 per cent, you may be charged with ‘driving while ability-impaired’, although this is usually done only after an accident or in a case of reckless or dangerous driving. You’re entitled to two chemical tests, which must measure within a certain percentage of each other, e.g. 0.02.

Penalties for drinking and driving in the US

Penalties include fines, imprisonment, on-the-spot licence suspension or revocation, and community service. A first conviction for drunk driving results in a heavy fine and revocation of your licence for up to six months. In some 40 states, imprisonment from 1 to 60 days is mandatory after the first or second offence for driving while intoxicated (exceptions are Arkansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia).

In many states, offenders must participate in a programme of alcohol education or rehabilitation. If you have an accident while drunk, the penalties are usually more severe, particularly if you cause an injury or death. However, many people believe that the penalties are too lenient and that tougher action is needed to deter habitual drinkers from driving.

There’s a strong lobby against drunk drivers, spearheaded by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), many of whose members have lost children in road accidents involving drunk drivers. In some areas people are encouraged to dial 911 (the emergency number) to report drunk drivers. Even carrying an open alcohol container in the passenger compartment of a vehicle is a serious offence in many states (where alcohol must be transported in sealed containers, e.g. unopened bottles or cans, and be locked in the boot).

It’s an offence to carry alcohol across some state borders. Riding a moped, bicycle or horse while drunk is also illegal (and may cost you points against your driving licence!), and driving under the influence of drugs carries the same penalties as those for drunk driving.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

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