What Works to Reduce the Social Costs of Drunk Driving
The Real Costs of a DUI & How to Avoid Them
Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a mistake you don't want to make. Even if the police arrest you before you get in a crash, getting a DUI can derail your life. You may have your license suspended, spend time in jail — up to a year for a first DUI in some states — and pay thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs. You'll also see your car insurance rates skyrocket, with the higher premium costing tens of thousands of dollars over time. Here's why and how to prevent DUIs — and what to do if you find yourself charged with one.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
A DUI: What It Is, What It Means for You
Despite the overwhelming risks, the FBI estimates that in 2018 there were more than 1 million people arrested for driving under the influence. That’s 9.7% of all arrests annually. This usually means the drivers had a blood alcohol level (BAC) of at least 0.08 — the federal cutoff for driving under the influence (DUI). This often means they had five drinks or more.
Can you be arrested for a lower BAC? Yes. Some DUIs go to commercial drivers for a BAC of 0.04, and under "zero tolerance" laws, teens can be arrested for 0.02 or less in many states. People may also be arrested if they have less than a 0.08 blood alcohol but are weaving, drifting across traffic lanes, or showing other signs of impairment. In many states, you can also get a DUI for driving under the influence of drugs, including marijuana or cocaine.
Most DUI defendants have not been in an accident, but their decision to drink and drive can turn their lives upside down. A DUI is one of the worst things you can have on your driving record, and it's guaranteed to drive up your car insurance premiums, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
Drunk driving is a major concern to the insurance industry, according to Michael Barry, vice president of media relations at the Insurance Information Institute. "Many of these accidents — even when there's no fatality — involve significant property damage and bodily injury," he says. Bodily injury costs are especially concerning, says Barry, because "it costs a lot more to repair a person than it does to repair a car."
The good news is that drunk driving fatalities fell by 7% between 2008 and 2017, thanks to public awareness, increased enforcement and the use of safety belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other safety groups hope to drive that percentage close to zero.
What a DUI Will Cost You
A DUI exacts a high financial toll. "Even when there's no accident involved, the financial implications are very serious for someone convicted of driving under the influence — no matter what state you're in," warns Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute.
According to Josh Dale, a California attorney and executive director of the California DUI Attorneys Association, "In California, the high-end of punishment for a first offense includes five years of probation, DUI classes, a 30-day license suspension followed by five months of restricted driving, and usually a jail term or community service. There isn't room in the jails, so people usually do the sheriff's work program instead."
Besides having your license suspended for 30 days or more and possible jail time or community service, you'll pay out of pocket for many other DUI fines and charges (see below).
The True Cost of a DUI
Here's what the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs estimated a first-time DUI conviction could cost (the cost may be higher in some other states):
Fines, court and attorneys' fees: $4,000
You will certainly have to pay fines following a DUI conviction, along with various court costs. A conviction may carry other fines up to three times higher. Often you'll need a DUI attorney to help you post bail or to fight a charge you deem unfair.
Towing/impound fee: $685
Since you can't drive if you're arrested, the police will have your car towed and impounded.
Drug education and treatment: $650
Most DUI convictions carry some sort of required alcohol or drug education program. This could range from an eight-hour online class to months of classroom and group counseling. For example, in California, you will have to complete either a 30-hour, 44-hour or 60-hour program after your first offense, depending on how high your BAC was.
DMV reinstatement fee: $100
Estimated increase in car insurance premiums over 13 years: $40,000
Each insurance company calculates premiums differently, but no matter which company you use, you are bound to see a significant increase in your premium following a DUI. Estimates range from a few hundred dollars (Esurance) to $2,700 a year (the state of California).
Total estimated minimum cost to you of a DUI: $45,435
The penalties and fines are much higher for a repeat DUI. And as the California program points out, this doesn't count the possible medical costs to you or to victims, which could run into millions of dollars.
How to Avoid Getting a DUI
The best way to prevent a DUI: don't drink and drive, period. But if you are one of the tens of millions of Americans who drink socially, you are probably wondering how much is too much — and there isn't an easy answer. The happy hour after work, the Sunday football party at a friend's house, or your cousin's wedding can all end with a DUI if you are not careful. That's why experts recommend that you don't drive after drinking, even one beer or glass of wine.
All states allow a DUI arrest if you have a BAC of 0.08, but people may experience very different levels of impairment at this blood alcohol level. A large man who drinks regularly may show no signs of impairment, while a smaller woman who rarely drinks may be significantly impaired. According to NHTSA, the typical effects of a 0.08 BAC level of impairment include:
- Poor muscle coordination (balance, speech vision, reaction time, hearing)
- Difficulty detecting danger
- Impaired judgment, self-control, reasoning and memory
This might inhibit your ability to drive by affecting:
- Short-term memory loss
- Speed control
- Reduced capability of processing information
- Impaired perception
Keeping Intoxicated Friends and Family Off the Road
Let's face it — it's hard to reason with a person who is drunk and wants to drive home. The best strategy is to have a plan for a designated driver before it becomes a life or death situation. But if you do find yourself trying to stop a friend or loved one from driving, try these strategies from Mothers Against Drunk Driving:
- Stay calm, talk slowly and clearly, and don't be confrontational
- Try to get others to help you — it will be harder for the person to ignore the advice of several friends
- Explain you care about them and don't want them to hurt themselves or others
- Suggest alternatives — a sober friend, Uber/Lyft, a cab or public transportation
- Invite them to sleep over at your house
- Try to get their car keys
- If all else fails, call the police. As MADD points out, "It's better to have a friend arrested than injured or killed."
Close to Home: Expert Shares Story About Losing a Son to Drunk Driving
"Dustin was an 18-year-old boy, and as his parents, we thought we taught him everything we knew he had to know — no drinking until age 21, no drinking and driving, and don't get in a car with a drunk driver.
But at age 18, he made a fatal mistake. He was seat-belted and sober, but he was in the backseat of a vehicle driven by someone who was impaired by alcohol and under the influence of drugs.
They went for a late-night pizza two miles away from the home they were staying at. The car she was driving went 70 mph in a 35-mph zone. The car ricocheted off trees and railings. I can't imagine what my son was going through. It then went over a cliff and into a river.
I wanted to know everything. Did he suffer? Was he alive? Was he aware? The doctor told me he drowned. My son didn't die from impact — he drowned after the impact. Dustin knew he was dying, submerged in a vehicle he couldn't get out of. He was six feet tall in the back seat of a two-door car, and he couldn't get out. He spent the last 10 minutes of his life alone, trying to escape. That is what I will never forget. He must have been so afraid. And I wasn't able to comfort him in his last minutes. That is one thing I'll never be able to change.
I went back to work fairly quickly, thinking that was what I needed. But a year down the road, the pain was so severe in my heart I would lay awake at night. I realized I needed to take time off.
Of course, the emotional impact is forever. You learn to live with it, but there's always the empty seat at Thanksgiving, the empty basket at Easter. You have to get through those hurdles every year.
We all have a role in resolving this societal issue. We have to stop being complacent. We need as many voices as possible advocating for change."
"I Got a DUI...Now What?"
If you've been arrested for a DUI, what happens next will depend on:
- What state you are arrested in
- Whether this is your first offense
- Whether you had a BAC of 0.08 or higher
If you want to fight your DUI charge, plea bargain or seek an accommodation, you will probably want to hire an attorney. There are defense attorneys across the country that specialize in DUI cases, and you will want one who is very familiar with the law and standard practices in your state. The National Motorists Association has a list of DUI attorneys on its website.
You'll likely to be paying more in legal fees and car insurance. You should immediately review your budget for areas to start cutting spending and monthly costs. Look at your credit cards, auto loan, homeowners and renters insurance, and your mortgage. Contact your credit card company to discuss transferring your balance to a lower interest card; call your lender to discuss a potential mortgage refinance for savings, and if necessary, look at refinancing your auto loan for a lower payment.
Clearing Your Record: What's Possible
Once you've paid your fines, attended your classes and gotten your unrestricted license back, you may still feel the pain of your DUI because it will remain on your record for years. There are two sets of records you should be concerned about: your DMV record and your criminal record. Every state has different laws regarding how long a DUI will remain on both sets of records.
Many states allow you to have your criminal record expunged (erased) a certain number of years after your conviction and punishment. "In California, you can usually have your criminal record expunged after three years," says Dale of the California DUI Attorneys Association. "After you've completed your punishments, you can go to court and file a 1203.4 petition to cleanse your record of the DUI. Then you can say you (don't have) a DUI." However, there's a catch: "You can't seal your record from the DMV. So you might have to explain it if your employer looks at your DMV record and sees the DUI."
Most states will not expunge your DMV records. In California, for example, a DUI remains on your DMV record for 10 years before it automatically drops off. In some states — like Washington — the DUI remains on your DMV record for life.
Some states do allow you to plea-bargain to avoid a DUI conviction in favor of a lesser charge. For example, in California, your lawyer may be able to plead your DUI down to what is called a "wet reckless" charge — meaning reckless driving involving alcohol. This is not easy to get and is usually reserved for offenders with borderline (0.08) BAC and no prior offenses.
Other states may allow diversion programs, in which the state drops your DUI charge if you agree to enter a rehabilitation program. These plea bargains have been losing favor in recent years, though, as safety experts argue they undermine the comprehensive DUI system.
Dealing With the Car Insurance Hit From a DUI
As insurance groups make clear, your car insurance after a DUI will go up. The only question is by how much and for how long. This will depend on your insurance company, the state you live in and your overall driving record. Plan on paying higher rates for at least three years, but in some places, it will be five to ten or more.
If you had a good driver discount before the DUI, you are likely to lose that as well. California state law, for example, does not allow you to get a good driver discount on your insurance for 10 years after a DUI.
In a typical scenario, your insurance rate could double in the first year after a DUI, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Then there's the risk that your insurance company will decide to cancel your policy. Insurance companies usually cannot cancel your insurance policy unless you haven't paid your premium, you lied on your application or you have had your license suspended. But since your license is usually suspended when you get a DUI, your insurance company can cancel your insurance.
Another possibility is that the company may choose not to renew your policy when it next comes up for renewal. Either way, if you can't find another company to insure you, you may end up in the high-risk pool, which will involve a higher premium.
"The person who is convicted or pleads guilty is at risk of ending up in the assigned risk pool, and your rates are likely to go up dramatically in that pool," says Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute. "Most people in that pool end up there because at least three different insurers denied them coverage in the voluntary market."
Finally, be aware that 37 states have "alcohol exclusion laws" on the books, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. This means that insurance companies can refuse to pay for medical treatment if you were injured while driving drunk.
Doctors and hospital administrators have protested that the law interferes with their ability to diagnose and treat alcoholics, leading some states to repeal these laws. In fact, in 2001, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners repealed its prior support for alcohol exclusion laws, and since then, at least 12 states have repealed the law.
...And Don't Forget the SR-22 Insurance Add-On
Anyone with a DUI conviction is probably familiar with the dreaded SR-22 certification. This is an addendum to your car insurance policy that certifies to the DMV that you have adequate insurance coverage. Most states require you to get an SR-22 if you have a DUI conviction.
Usually, you will need to maintain the SR-22 certification for one to three years. If you let your insurance lapse during this time, your license will be suspended. The insurance company can decide not to renew your policy and SR-22 during the three-year period, in which case you will need to find another company to insure you, all without letting your insurance lapse.
The SR-22 represents yet another expense. You must get the SR-22 from an insurance company, but not all companies issue them, so you may need to shop around. Once you find a company that issues SR-22s, it could take a month or so for the certificate to be issued and submitted to the state, meaning you probably will not be able to drive legally during that period. The fee to get the SR-22 is usually only $15 to $25, but the real expense comes in the form of a higher auto insurance premium.
Once you have an SR-22, you should keep it in your vehicle at all times and show it to law enforcement if they pull you over.
Drugged Driving: Another Type of DUI
Added to the problem of drunk driving is driving under the influence of illegal drugs, or even legal drugs such as prescription medications. In most states, a DUI can also mean driving under the influence of drugs.
As drunk driving rates decline, national data show that drug-impaired driving is on the rise, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). The percentage of fatally injured drivers who tested positive for drugs — 44% — is higher than those testing positive for alcohol.
More than 430 drugs can impair driving, but each one can affect users differently, and authorities don't know how much of each drug causes impairment, the association reports.
Meanwhile, medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and D.C., and recreational use is allowed in four states and D.C., the GHSA states. Some states, like Washington, have set a legal limit for THC (the active ingredient in cannabis), but others have not. "There's mixed evidence on the effect of marijuana by itself on crash risk," says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety. "But one of the things research by the federal government has shown is that marijuana is often used in conjunction with alcohol."
If you have a friend or family member who appears to have a problem with alcohol or drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends you keep an eye out for these warning signs and offer them your help and support.
Preventing DUIs: What Really Works?
Over the past four decades, law enforcement agencies and public safety groups have tried a number of strategies to stop people from getting behind the wheel after drinking. What are the most effective strategies?
Public education, school-based campaigns, drug treatment, "zero tolerance" laws for teens, better enforcement and mandatory ignition interlocks — a device that prevents your car from starting if your BAC approaches the legal limit — all work to save lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So do providing alternatives to drinking and driving, such as taxis, ridesharing services and public transportation, according to University of Arizona criminology researcher Joshua Browles, whose study showed students living near light rail in Phoenix were less likely to drink and drive. "Sanctions and increased enforcement don't have to be the only way to prevent people from driving drunk," Browles concluded in his paper.
What doesn't work, according to some researchers, are harsher sentences — that is, longer jail time and higher fines. The problem isn't just that severe punishments don't deter crime, they're not cost-effective either, according to University of Kansas doctoral candidate Steven Sylvester, who studies state and local laws that require ignition interlocks.
"Because judges have discretion in how they implement punishments, they can decide on an interlock device instead of jail," says Sylvester. "If you're looking at it from a cost-benefit analysis, it's cheaper for the state to punish people by putting them on an interlock device and have them pay the monthly fees, than by putting them in jail." The ignition interlock device (IID) may cost you anywhere from $60 to $200 per month.
Drunk Driving: What Strategies Are Effective
Here's a breakdown of the different strategies for stopping drunk driving, along with the research on what's effective and what may need rethinking.
Anti-Drinking and Driving Campaigns Aimed at Teens
Teenagers are three times more likely than more experienced drivers to be in a fatal crash. Schools and state safety officials in South Dakota, Nebraska and many other states have developed online tools and teaching materials to convince teens not to drive or get in a car with someone who has been drinking or using drugs.
Zero Tolerance Laws for Teen Drivers
All 50 states and D.C. passed "zero tolerance" laws, which make it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in their system. Usually this translates into a BAC of 0.02.
Ignition Interlock Device
About half of all states now require an ignition interlock after a first offense. These devices are installed in cars and measure alcohol on the driver's breath. If your blood alcohol content (BAC) measures above a certain limit (usually 0.02 to 0.04, much lower than the legal limit), the car won't start. The National Transportation Safety Board, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and others recommend mandatory installation of ignition interlock devices after all DUI convictions, including first-time offenders.
In 42 states and the District of Columbia, your license will be suspended the first time you get a DUI. Usually the suspension is from three to six months, but in some states it is longer or shorter. Most states allow limited driving privileges (for example, to get to work or school) after a limited period of complete suspension.
Holding Sellers and Hosts Accountable
About 40 states and the District of Columbia allow commercial servers of alcohol — and/or social hosts who serve alcohol to people who are later involved in a crash — to be held liable for any injury or death. This means someone injured by an intoxicated guest on the road after your holiday cocktail party could sue you, although the laws regarding social hosts generally apply to people who serve alcohol to minors.
38 states and D.C. conduct periodic sobriety checkpoints in which police pull over all drivers to check for impairment. "Research shows that conducting regular highly publicized sobriety checkpoints can be an effective deterrent to keep people from getting on the road drunk," says Russ Rader, spokesperson for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It's a myth that these checkpoints have to involve a lot of manpower and are costly. They don't need to be to be effective."
Jail and Prison
Many states can put you in jail for up to a year for a first offense, though the sentence is usually lighter and can be waived in favor of community service. If there were aggravating circumstances — for example, a very high BAC, a car accident or the presence of a minor in the car — you are more likely to get jail time. About one-third of people convicted of DUIs are repeat offenders, and studies show that they are more likely to cause fatal crashes, according to the Insurance Information Institute. In recent years, states have stiffened the penalties for repeat offenders — including felony charges after the third or fourth DUI conviction.
Jail is perhaps the harshest DUI penalty, and the most controversial. Because it is expensive and jails and prisons are often overcrowded, judges and prosecutors are often reluctant to sentence DUI offenders to lengthy jail terms.
Technology That May Stamp Out DUIs Across the Board
A promising new technology that may be available soon is the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). The government and private companies are working together to develop a system in new vehicles that will be able to detect whether the driver has a BAC of 0.08 or higher, and if so, block ignition of the vehicle. The system will measure BAC either through the air or by passing light through the skin of the fingertip.
"The government and the companies that are working on the technology have made a lot of progress and soon will be field testing two of the most promising systems," says Russ Rader, spokesperson for IIHS. "Our research estimates that if this technology were on all vehicles today, we could prevent almost 7,000 drunk driving deaths per year."
Colleen Sheehey-Church, President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, notes that one day in the future, this technology could be as common as airbags are today. "I don't know any parent who wouldn't want this in their child's car," she says. "It is done in such an unassuming way that you will never even know it's installed — unless it keeps the car from starting."
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety: This organization has a wealth of information about alcohol impaired driving, including statistics and details on state laws.
Teen/Parent Driving Agreement: Experts recommend signing an agreement with your teen before he gets behind the wheel for the first time. This sample agreement lays out rules and responsibilities you may want to consider.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: The SAMHSA runs a free, confidential hotline for those looking for treatment referrals and information to individuals concerned about their own substance abuse or that of a family member or friend. The website also has several other resources on underage drinking and substance abuse.
Governors Highway Safety Association: Provides an interactive map highlighting driving laws in each state, including a summary of DUI laws.
The National Motorists Association: They offer a list of attorneys by state who specialize in DUIs and traffic offenses.
SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions): A national advocacy group for teens who want to help save their classmates from an alcohol-fueled car crash.
The AAA Guide to Teen Driver Safety: Resources for parents and teens.
Drive It Home: This National Safety Council site offers resources for teens and their parents on everything from licensing to preventing distracted and drunk driving.
National Organizations for Youth Safety: The NOYS website includes sections on injury prevention, including impaired driving.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Impaired Driving." Accessed January 29, 2021.
- Governors Highway Safety Association. "Drug-Impaired Driving: Marijuana and Opioids Raise Critical Issues for States." Accessed January 22, 2021.
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) . "Alcohol and Drugs." Accessed January 29, 2021.
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Alcohol-Impaired Driving: 2018 Data." Accessed January 22, 2021.