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If You Drink, Don't Drive
by Ruby Bayan

Craggy Gardens picnic area One of the first things you should know, even before you apply for a license to drive a vehicle in the USA, is the country's very strict rules against driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

If you drive when you have become even partially incoherent due to the effects of alcohol, drugs, or medication, you can be severely penalized for charges known as DUI (Driving Under the Influence [of alcohol/drugs]), DWI (Driving While Intoxicated/Impaired), or OWI (Operating [a vehicle] While Intoxicated/Impaired).

Depending on the DUI rules of the State where the arrest is made, penalties for drunk driving range from impounding the vehicle and suspending the driver's license, to locking up the driver for several days in jail. If drunken driving has led to personal injuries, the offense is elevated to a felony.


You may ask why, compared to European and Asian countries, the USA has become overly strict with drunken driving. According to the 1997 statistics released by the United States Department of Transportation, more than 38.5% of all traffic accidents in America were alcohol-related traffic deaths.

Many families have had to endure the accidental deaths and injuries of loved ones who were run over or side-swiped by intoxicated drivers, not to mention the demise of the drunken drivers themselves. In order to prevent these casualties, the government empowered the States to design and implement their respective DUI laws, covering the allowed blood alcohol levels, the intoxication tests conducted, and the corresponding penalties.

Blood-Alcohol Level

In all the States, you can be charged with DUI when an arresting officer has determined that your blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) has reached 0.08% or 0.10% (depending on the State). For the average person, a 0.08% BAC is enough to cause sleepiness, delayed reactions, and poor judgement -- conditions that adversely affect driving skills.

Although some drivers may feel that they are still coherent even when their BAC reaches these levels, the States have ruled that, regardless, they are no longer fit to drive (i.e., "legally drunk") and must, therefore, be penalized if they hit the road.

A motorist who needs to attend a function where alcohol is served can still raise a toast, as long as he remembers that another drink or two can raise his blood-alcohol concentration to the illegal level. This is because different people react differently to the effects of the various types of alcohol. Factors such as body weight and metabolism, fatigue, medication, and food intake affect the concentration of alcohol retained in the blood.

Apprehending DUIs

Many States deploy "sobriety checkpoints" where police officers ask the motorists if they have recently had anything to drink. And drivers who are betrayed by the smell of alcohol on their breath, a flushed face, slurred speech, fumbling, disorientation, and failure to follow instructions, are asked to do field sobriety tests (FST).

Police officers are authorized to conduct field sobriety tests to ascertain that a driver is legally drunk. They may ask the driver to recite the alphabet, do a one-leg stand, walk on a straight line, or swing from heel to toe. Aside from the roadside tests, officers can also subject the suspect to chemical tests (breath, blood, and urine) to determine the exact blood-alcohol concentration at the time of detection. Depending on the DUI laws of the State, drivers who refuse to take the tests can suffer a variety of penalties.

At the same time, along the highways, police officers look out for symptoms of the probability that the motorist is intoxicated. The symptoms they pay attention to are: wide turns, weaving/swerving/drifting, driving too slow, sudden stops and starts, going the wrong way, and not following the lane. For your own safety, get out of the way of drivers that exhibit these symptoms.

Punishment for DUI

DUI laws vary from State to State. Just as the legally drunk level for blood-alcohol concentration varies between 0.08% and 0.10%, and the zero-tolerance for juvenile drivers (legally not allowed to drink) vary from 19 to 21 years old, so do the punishments for DUI offense.

In most States, however, the penalty for first offense can be a just a fine, a license restriction, and/or attendance in a DUI seminar. Some States also suspend the driver's license from one to six months, with a probation period of up to three years. A comprehensive chart of DUI laws per state and county is available at the United States DWI/DUI (Drunk Driving) Pages for your reference.

For a second DUI offense, laws are stricter all over the country. Penalties include jail sentence, involvement in community service, attendance in AA meetings, and confiscation/impounding of vehicle.

Many American lawyers and law firms specialize in DUI cases, but, naturally, they charge a hefty sum for the defense. Aside from paying the fines, and the lawyer's fees, drivers convicted of a DUI offense may encounter difficulties with their auto insurance. If they are not dropped by their insurance companies, they will surely have to pay a much higher rate.

Designated Driver

Now that you are aware of the consequences of DUI, you can better understand the American term: "designated driver". The designated driver is the one who remains sober when everyone else is drinking -- the one responsible for driving everyone home safely. Because here in the USA, people who drink don't drive.

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