Teen Drunk Driving: The Sobering Facts of Underage DUIs

10 percent of drivers account for 17 percent of DUI fatalities.

Across the U.S. young people – some as young as 15 -- can obtain driver’s licenses under graduated license programs. Unfortunately these youthful drivers -- though prohibited from buying alcohol until age 21 – are generating some sobering DUI statistics.

The Bad News

Although drivers under the age of 21 represent 10 percent of licensed drivers they are responsible for 17 percent of fatal alcohol-related crashes. Approximately 2,000 underage drinkers die each year behind the wheel and alcohol is a factor in a third of all teenage auto fatalities. Another problem is that underage drinkers have a tendency to binge drink as reflected in the blood alcohol content (BAC) of victims of intoxicated underage car accidents -- on average, five times the legal limit (.40 BAC). Underage drinkers are also more reckless and less likely to wear seatbelts -- 74 percent of the young DUI drivers involved in fatal accidents were unrestrained at the point of impact.

The Law on Underage DUIs

Although all 50 states consider it a crime for anyone to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent, the rules are usually stricter for those under the age of 21. In most states, anyone under 21 operating a motor vehicle with a BAC level of .02% or higher can be cited for a DUI. Some states, such as Arizona and Notrth Carolina, are less forgiving with a “zero-tolerance” policy for underage drinkers. In these states, any BAC over 0% will trigger a DUI. Some states have hybrid BAC rules with .01% triggering some penalties, or a higher BAC, say .05%, triggering a full-blown DUI charge. Find your state’s BAC rules.

The Penalties

Typically, an underage driver convicted of a DUI will have the driver’s license suspended for one year or more. Judges also have the power to order the driver’s car impounded. In addition, the underage drinking driver faces fines that may range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on state law and the facts specific to the case.

The young driver will most likely have to attend drug/alcohol and driver’s education classes as well as to complete a month or more of community service. Sometimes the community service is in lieu of paying a fine, sometimes it is in combination with the fine. There is also the possibility of jail time, again depending on state law and the facts specific to the case. For a first offense, jail time may range from 24 hours to a year. In addition, the young driver will be subject to a probationary period of three to five years.

The Effect on Career and Education

One potentially devastating effect of a youthful DUI is that disclosure of the resulting conviction may be required on college applications, job applications, or for requests for some types of financial aid. The failure to report this information can result in the loss of rights, loss of financial aid, or even charges of perjury, if later discovered. 

Proper Pleas and Legal Advice

Because of the more complex penalties and rules associated with underage drinking and driving, the arrested offender should obtain legal advice before making a plea or agreeing to a plea bargain.

State by State Listing of Teen Drunk Driving Laws

Find your state below to get information surrounding underage DUI laws.

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