Underage Drinking and Driving Laws and Adult DUI Recommendations


Area of Law: 

Even though laws vary from state to state regarding the circumstances of underage drinking (i.e. some states have zero exceptions, while other states leave underage drinking almost compltely in the hands of the parent), all 50 states have some form of zero tolerance for underage drinking and driving.

Most states define underage drinking and driving as any presence of alcohol. Impairment is not a consideration. BAC ranges from 0.0% to 0.2% are the only acceptable alcohol amounts depending on which state you are in.

Underage Criteria & Adults

It is unlikely that laws governing underage drinking and driving will become more lenient, which is probably a good idea. However, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers are suggesting that the standards applied to drivers under age 21 should apply to everyone.

Little distinction is made between the judgment capability of an 18 year old and the “irresponsibility” of a middle-aged adult who may share a beer with colleagues after work. The following statements are good indicators of the proposed regulations and laws legislators and law enforcement agencies may be lobbied to endorse.

The only safe amount of alcohol when you are mixing driving and drinking is zero - double zeros, no alcohol. —Tina Pascoe, of MADD

Don't forget, impairment starts with the first drink and driving impaired is a crime. —NHTSA radio script, July 2003

If .08% is good, .05% is better. That’s where we’re headed, it doesn’t mean that we should get there all at once. But ultimately it should be .02%. —Steve Simon, Chairman, Minnesota State DUI Task Force

Drink. Drive. Go to Jail. —Texas Department of Transportation Campaign

The last statement in the list is amazingly blatant considering that it is not illegal to drink and drive in Texas or any state for that matter. However, the bandwagon driven by neo-prohibitionists is popular among law enforcement and legislators who get political mileage out of their support for such measures.

What will Be the Effect?

Proponents of such draconian measures claim that they will help reduce alcohol-related deaths, which according to their statistics is estimated at 18,000 per year. Put in those terms, it might be hard to argue their point.

However, the 18,000 alcohol-related deaths statistic doesn’t take into consideration the impairment level of the driver, only that alcohol was present, no matter how small the amount. Consequently, if impairment isn’t the issue, then the accident could have happened anyway. And if the driver was over .08 BAC, then those drivers are disregarding current laws anyway and a stricter law will have no effect.

The real effect of stricter laws won’t be a safer commute or trip home from the ball game; it will mean more arrests, crowded jails, and less time and energy spent on other crimes and public safety issues. And since someone who blows .02 BAC will most likely not show any impairment, what would be the probable cause to pull them over anyway? Or would we just assume most drivers have had a drink and start putting up more checkpoints and possibly installing breath-testing ignition interlock devices into every car?

The Law of Diminishing Returns

At the inception of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980, the goal was to pass legislation that would remove habitual drunk drivers from the road, hopefully resulting in a substantial reduction in deaths caused by drunk drivers. They achieved this objective by 1985 before founder Candice Lightner resigned. Her resignation was in protest to the new focus MADD leadership had put on fighting any drinking and driving after meeting their original intent.

MADD’s priority change and the ensuing legislation they lobbied for resulted in an explosion of DUI arrests. Arrests and convictions began to be associated with success, while the important numbers changed very little.

If we follow the above recommendations and apply the same criteria for underage drinking and driving to adult DUIs, the odds are good we will see the same results we have seen in the past. The critical numbers won’t change much but there would be significantly more arrests and convictions. More lives, reputations, and careers would be ruined. But is that really the goal?


Any traffic death is a tragedy. A traffic death caused by a habitual drunk is equally tragic and could be more preventable if we were to spend more time and resources focusing on this narrow segment of the drinking population. However, if we allow special interest groups to promote using up our time, resources, and energy pursuing the unimpaired drinker and blaming even a whiff of alcohol for every accident, then the habitual drunk driver will continue at their current levels and continue to be a threat to motorists.

This article was written by Joe Suhre, of Suhre & Associates, LLC, a firm with offices in Chicago, Illinois, Dayton, Ohio, and Columbus, Ohio. Joe received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.