What is the Zero Tolerance Law?

Underage kids drinking alcohol - copyright: Mandy Godbehear

Zero Tolerance Law

The Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level at which a driver will be charged with impaired driving* is 0.08% in all states. This is often referred to as the “legal limit”. However, if you are under 21 years, you can be charged with drunk driving under the zero tolerance law. The amount of alcohol needed to be convicted under this law ranges from 0.00 to 0.02 percent, depending on the specific state law.

If you are under 21 years, it is important that you understand the zero tolerance law. Even a small amount of alcohol can easily put you at risk. It is also important to know that a conviction based on blood alcohol content is more or less automatic. No other proof is needed. And remember, any traces of alcohol in your blood may result in a conviction.

If you are charged under this law, you will also receive all penalties in full. Courts tend to show “zero tolerance” for this violation. In most states, DMV will also automatically suspend your driver’s license. Even without a court conviction. This is known as an “administrative per se” suspension.

Underage drinking - what is it?

Drinking and Driving

Even if being arrested and facing a charge can be a scary experience, there is much more at stake. Driving while impaired is not only against the law; it is also dangerous and could cost someone their life.

It is dangerous enough for experienced drivers to drive while impaired; inexperienced drivers can make the situation even worse.

It goes without saying that alcohol and driving do not make a good combination. You could talk to just about any family and find out that they have lost someone due to an alcohol and driving fatality. Many of those lost are teenagers who thought a few drinks would not affect their driving.

Zero Tolerance

When are You Impaired?

Research, of course, says otherwise. Studies have shown that driving even with a BAC below 0.02% can affect a driver. This is especially true, when the driver is under the age of 21 and inexperienced.

It cannot be said often enough: even a small amount of alcohol can alter your driving skills.

How Alcohol Affects You

In order to drive safely in rapidly changing road scenarios, it is essential that you are capable of reacting quickly and effectively. Drinking slows down your ability to maneuver and use your skills efficiently. Delayed brain function and information processing are typical effects of alcohol. Alcohol can affect hand-eye coordination too.

But more importantly, alcohol impairs your judgment. It is harder to judge the speed and distance of other vehicles, and you become more likely to take risks.

Since your judgment is affected, you are most likely not even aware of this.

Background to the Zero Tolerance Law

The number of alcohol related deaths and accidents on American highways pushed for stricter drunk-driving laws in the 1980s. A special focus was put on underage drivers. By imposing a low BAC level and severe penalties, the zero tolerance law was designed to lower the number of accidents caused by young drivers. It was also designed to discourage them from drinking alcohol all together.

Testing for Impaired Driving

Impaired driving is determined through several methods. After a traffic stop, a law enforcement officer will look for slurred speech and do a thorough evaluation of the driver’s eyes to see if they appear glazed or glassy. Officers are specifically trained to identify and signs that indicate a driver’s ability to drive has been impaired.

If an officer deems that you are younger than 21 and appear to have consumed alcohol, you may be temporarily detained for the purpose of taking a breathalyzer test to determine your blood alcohol level (BAC), usually at the police station. You may also be asked for a urine or blood test.

Zero Tolerance Law - Understand the consequences

Criminal Consequences

Penalties for violating the zero tolerance law vary from state to state. There is always an administrative per se suspension or revocation of your driving privilege. The period varies from 30 days up to two years for a first offense. When convicted in court, penalties can include community service, a fine, and further suspensions of your driving privilege.

In some states, you must complete an alcohol awareness course before your driver’s license is re-instated. You may also be required to submit to a complete driver’s license examination to be re-issued a driver’s license.

Zero Tolerance Law - Understand the consequences

Other Consequences

Beside criminal consequences, a young driver with a conviction of impaired driving could lose his or her job and risk future opportunities. Scholarships may be revoked or denied. Both personal and professional relationships may change. While short-term consequences are well-known, the long-term consequences may be the one that hurt you the most.
Still, the most significant and dangerous consequence is that someone could lose their life because of an impaired driver.

A drink isn’t worth that price.

*/ The legal term for impaired driving vary by state, but is often referred to as Driving Under the Influence (DUI), Operating Under the Influence (OUI) or Driving/Operating While Impaired/Intoxicated (OWI/DWI). In most cases, they all mean the same thing. But some states make a difference between DUI (an offense for which a driver can be charged if the driver’s blood-alcohol concentration is above 0.05) and DWI (0.08%).


Photo credit: trafficsafetymarketing.gov and Mandy Godbehear

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