Which States Have the Strictest Drunk Driving Laws?

January 31, 2019

Drunk driving laws are incredibly important to be mindful of. Variations from stateto state can lead to confusion for some drivers as to what the relevant lawsare in their location. There are variations in laws related to driving whileunder the influence (DUI) from state to state. These differences can have a bigimpact on how DUI laws are enforced and what the penalties for a DUI are.

In this article, we’ll explore which states have the strictest DUI laws on thebooks. Although dui limitsby state are largely consistent, we’ll also discuss where these maydiffer. Punishment for particularly high blood alcohol content (BAC)convictions, such as for arrests with a BAC over 1.5, can vary significantlyfrom state to state. Differences between laws and the enforcement of those lawsmake it so that there isn’t a single, comprehensive DUI law enforcement strategythroughout the United States. Each state and area is largely allowed to decidehow much to prioritize DUI enforcement, and how to go about doing thataccording to their resources and the state constitution.

Due to the number of DUI laws that exist in various states, this overview won’t bea comprehensive breakdown of all DUI laws across all states. Understanding thestrictest laws that exist in the country can give you a useful starting placefor exploring the specific DUI laws in your state. Also, keep in mind that DUIlaws can, and probably will, experience change. Since DUI laws are implementedat the state level, changes to one state’s laws will not impact implementationin other states. This isn’t to say, however, that your state won’t adopt thelaws that have been utilized in another state. If one set of laws is shown tobe more effective in preventing DUI’s, chances are other states will consideradopting similar measures. As such, it is important to stay abreast of thecurrent laws in your state and local area.

BAC Thresholds

One area of DUI laws that is largely consistent across states is the BAC threshold.Forty-nine states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico use a BACthreshold of .08 to determine impairment. This .08 BAC threshold has seen wideuse over the last few decades and continues to remain in effect in most states.However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended in 2013 that states adopt a more stringent threshold. Specifically,they argued that states should adopt a BAC threshold of .05 to determineimpairment. One state has since taken up that limit. Starting December 30,2018, Utah will become the first state to implement a .05 BAC threshold fordrunk driving.[1]

Relationship Between BAC and Impairment

One of the reasons that Utah has adopted a lower BAC threshold, and why otherstates may soon choose to adopt one as well, is the strong correlation betweenhigher BAC levels and increased impairment. According to the Center for DiseaseControl (CDC), a BAC of .05 is present after 3 drinks within 1 hour areconsumed by an average sized man (160 lbs). In contrast to this, a BAC of .08is expected after that same individual consumes 4 drinks within 1 hour. The CDCconsiders 1 drink the equivalent of a 12 oz beer containing 5% alcohol, a 1.5oz shot of 80 proof liquor, or 5 oz of 12% alcohol wine. These estimates abouthow much an individual would need to drink to hit a certain BAC thresholdshould only be considered guidelines. Smaller people may drink far less than 3drinks in an hour and have a BAC exceeding .05. This variation makes itdifficult to know precisely what your BAC is simply by counting your drinks andhow long you have been drinking for.

The study by the CDC demonstrates that higher BAC levels are associated withincreased levels of impairment. The difference between a BAC of .05 and .08 canbe substantial in some cases. It should be understood from the beginning thatnearly any amount of alcohol will result in some type of impairment. At higherBAC levels, this impairment becomes more pronounced. An individual with a BACof .08 or higher will demonstrate poor concentration while driving, decreasedmuscle coordination, an impaired ability to assess their environment, poorerspeed control, and problems with short-term memory. Individuals with a BAC of.05 still demonstrate impairment, but to a much lower degree than individualswith a BAC of .08. Typically, individuals with a BAC of .05 have decreasedcoordination, poorer steering capability, reduced response time, and worse judgment than when they are sober.[2]

Differencesin dui laws by state,and in particular the threshold limits that trigger an arrest for impaireddriving, can present challenges for individuals that travel frequently or haverecently moved. For example, if you recently relocated from California to Utahand you feel comfortable assessing your fitness for driving, you may need to exerciseincreased caution. An excess of caution is always a good idea, particularly in states with the toughest dui laws.

Ignition Interlock Programs

Oneof the differences in DUI laws that exists between states is the use of ignition interlock device (IID) programs. IID programs have very strict requirements, and somestates implement stringent IID programs in an effort to curb recidivism forimpaired driving offenses. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbiarequire the use of an IID for all impaired driving offenses, regardless ofwhether it is a first-time or repeat offender. Additionally, California hasimplemented a pilot program in certain counties that require the use of an IIDfor all offenders, while Colorado and Maine implement incentives for first-timeoffenders to adopt an interlock device.

Sinceignition interlock device requirements are increasingly becoming a centralcomponent of many states’ efforts to address drunk and impaired driving, it isworthwhile to determine if your state has requirements for the use of an IID. States with the strictest laws,such as Utah, utilize an IID program for all offenders. There are advantages tothis approach. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)recommended the widespread adoption of ignition interlock devices in allstates, for all impairment offenses, as early as 2007. This recommendationstemmed from research that indicated that IID programs helped reduce recidivismin both first-time and repeat offenders.[3]

DespiteNHTSA recommendations, some states have yet to implement a requirement for allindividuals convicted of a DUI to go through an IID program. Some states, suchas Florida and New Hampshire have mandatory interlock device requirements forhigh BAC offenses, while other states like Wisconsin and Minnesota havemandatory interlock device requirements only when an individual is a repeatoffender with a high BAC. In many of the remaining states, including Idaho andNevada, IID requirements are at the discretion of the court.[4]

The State With the Toughest DUI Laws

Although there are broad similarities in DUI laws across nearly all states, if you aresearching for the toughestdui laws by state then you would almost certainly land on Utah. Byimplementing a lower legal limit to trigger a DUI, alongside some other changesto DUI laws that we will go over, Utah stands apart as a state with tough DUIlaws. The change to the BAC threshold in Utah is occurring on December 30,2018. After this point, individuals that are pulled over with a BAC over .05will be arrested for a DUI. Also, consider that ignition interlock devices aremandatory for all DUI convictions in Utah. This is true whether an individualis a first-time offender or whether they are a repeat offender.

One additional substantial change that Utah has adopted involves accidents thatinvolve death and a BAC level over the legal limit. Specifically, if anindividual is involved in an accident that causes the death of another, and hasa BAC of .05 or higher, they will be charged with criminal homicide. This is afelony charge that can result in substantial prison time. This, taken withUtah’s other laws for DUI offenses, make Utah the clear leader in strict DUI regulations.

If you don’t live in Utah, you may wonder why this matters for you. Well, one wayto view the changes in Utah is that they will be a pilot program for otherstates. Given that federal oversight, entities have already recommended thatthe legal BAC limit is lowered from .08 grams to .05 grams of alcohol, Utah’sadoption may serve as a test case that other states will observe. If these new,more strict laws result in reductions in DUI related offenses or deaths, thenother states will most likely begin to follow in Utah’s footsteps.[5]

Why Are States Considering Tougher Laws?

Over the past two decades, many states have been implementing increasingly tough DUIlaws. Utah’s adoption of a lower legal limit for DUI convictions is one exampleof this, but there are many others. The reason many states are consideringincreasingly tough DUI laws is that DUI arrests remain high. Utah itself citedthis as one reason it implemented a change to its laws. Specifically, in Utahover 54,000 individuals have been arrested for a DUI over the last 5 years, averaging 29 people per day.

Drunk driving isn’t a problem experienced only by Utah. CDC statistics provide afuller picture of the scope of the problem facing law enforcement today.According to the CDC, someone dies every 50 minutes as a result of drunk driving,resulting in 29 people per day dying from a preventable act. In 2016, therewere over 1 million arrests for drunk or impaired driving. This staggeringstatistic highlights the scope of the problem. However, one only needs to opentheir local newspaper to see the massive toll of drunk driving. Casualtiesresulting from impaired driving occur on a daily basis, and drunk drivingdeaths remain a high source of preventable deaths in the United States.Additionally, with an economic toll in excess of 44 billion dollars, there is astrong economic incentive for state authorities to continue to increase enforcement efforts.

States have adopted a variety of programs intended to curb the problem that currentlyexists with impaired driving. Some of these programs are geared towardeducating drivers on the dangers and legal impact of impaired driving. Otherprograms are based on changes to the way impaired driving is detected. Forexample, most states now regularly conduct field sobriety checkpoints. These checkpointsare highly visible, and proponents of the checkpoints argue that they not onlyallow law enforcement to detect impaired drivers, but their visibility servesas a powerful deterrent. Other states have implemented mandatory ignitioninterlock device programs for all individuals arrested for impaired driving.Ignition interlock devices have been demonstrated to reduce recidivism rates,which helps reduce the number of repeat offenders on the roads.

These efforts by proactive states to prevent drunk or impaired driving deaths aredemonstrating success in reducing deaths associated with drunk driving.According to the CDC, in 2005 an average of 15.2 deaths was recorded per100,000 people as a result of drunk driving. As of 2012, this number had been reducedto 11.4 deaths per 100,000 people.[6] Thissubstantial improvement is largely the result of more stringent DUI laws,increased enforcement of impaired drivers, and increased awareness resultingfrom educational programs about the dangers of drunk driving. As such,understanding which states have the toughest DUI laws can serve as a usefulguidepost for the direction in which impaired driving laws will most likelymove in coming years. If Utah and other states with tough DUI laws demonstratesubstantial progress in combating drunk driving, you can probably expect otherstates to begin adopting similar measures in the near future.


1 https://www.cnn.com/2018/12/17/us/utah-dui-law-trnd/index.html


3 https://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/nti/impaired_driving/pdf/811246.pdf

4 http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/drunken-driving.aspx



More Articles

Guaranteed Lowest Cost
$0 Lockout for Missed/Failed Tests
$0 Set-Up
$0 Standard Shipping Fees

Save over $200 with LCI – ask how today!

Let's Get Started!

Call (844) 387-0326