Legal Alcohol Limits
The information in this article is designed to be educational in nature. This article is not meant to substitute for legal advice or to encourage anyone to drink alcohol before driving a motor vehicle. Individuals should never drink alcohol and drive, and should always consult with an attorney for reliable legal advice.
Before 1998, the legal standard to determine intoxication varied from state to state. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 1998, President Bill Clinton took the initiative to establish nationwide standards to define the notion of legal intoxication. President Clinton called for a national limit of a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or higher to be established as a federal standard to define legal intoxication. Any person operating a vehicle with this BAC or higher would be operating the vehicle illegally, whether or not they displayed physical signs of being intoxicated.
Following this initiative, several bills were passed, including a Department of Transportation’s Appropriations Bill that would cut federal funding for states that did not adopt this measure, and the Department of Transportation’s 2001 Appropriations Act (HR4475) providing that states must pass the 0.08% BAC law or begin losing federal highway construction funds. As a result, all states now formally adopt 0.08% BAC level as the standard to identify legal intoxication; however, some states may also enact different additional statutes. For instance, in most states, the BAC level applied to drivers of commercial vehicles (including rented vehicles, such as U-Hall trucks) is lowered to 0.04%. Most states also have zero-tolerance laws regarding operating motor vehicles under the influence of alcohol for individuals who are under the legal drinking age of 21; this standard is also applied in almost every state except for special circumstances.
In addition to adopting the legal limit of 0.08%, many states now impose harsher penalties on individuals who have BACs that are exceptionally high.
States That Have Stricter Penalties for Individuals with High BACs
Most states now impose stricter penalties for individuals who are operating a motor vehicle with an exceptionally high BAC level. The courts often have less leeway regarding potential increased penalties and fines for individuals with increased BAC levels in these states and must impose harsher standards when individuals test at these levels.
Based on the latest available information from each state’s website, the states that have increased penalties associated with BAC level listed are listed below; states that have more than one level listed have additional penalties for each BAC level:
- Alabama: 0.15%
- Alaska: 0.15% (harsher penalties can be enforced at the judge’s discretion)
- Arizona: 0.15%
- Arkansas: 0.15%
- California: 0.15%
- Colorado: 0.15%
- Connecticut: 0.16%
- Delaware: 0.16%
- Washington, DC: 0.2% and 0.25%
- Florida: 0.20%
- Georgia: 0.15%
- Hawaii: 15%
- Idaho: 0.2 %
- Illinois: 0.16%
- Indiana: 0.15%
- Kansas: 0.15%
- Kentucky: 0.18%
- Louisiana: 0.15% and 0.2%
- Maine: 0.15%
- Massachusetts: 0.2% (for ages 17–21)
- Michigan: 0.17%
- Minnesota: 0.16%
- Missouri: 0.15%
- Montana: 0.16%
- Nebraska: .15%
- Nevada: 0.18%
- New Hampshire: 0.16%
- New Jersey: 0.10%
- New Mexico: 0.16%
- New York: 0.18%
- North Carolina: 0.15%
- North Dakota: 0.18%
- Ohio: 0.17%
- Oklahoma: 0.15%
- Oregon: 0.15%
- Pennsylvania: 0.1%
- Rhode Island: 0.1% and 0.15%
- South Dakota: 0.17%
- Indiana: 0.2%
- Texas: 0.15%
- Vermont: 0.16%
- Virginia: 0.15% and 0.2%
- Washington: 0.15%
- West Virginia: 0.15%
- Wisconsin: 0.17%, 0.2%, and 0.25%
- Wyoming: 0.15%
Because many states often revise their legal policies and enforcement of regulations, there may be some variation from the list. Cities within each state will conform to state regulations, although some local jurisdictions may be either stricter or less harsh than others, depending on the situation; however, the general trend is for penalties to be harsher and to be enforced more strictly for violating operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated laws in every state. Individuals who are arrested for operating under the influence of alcohol and display BAC levels at the levels listed are subject to significantly increased penalties, including jail time and fines in the states listed above; however, the actual sanctions imposed will vary from case to case and from individual to individual.
Individuals who have previous DUI offenses and display elevated BAC levels should expect even harsher penalties and less variation in the potential sanctions imposed on them. Individuals who have high BAC levels and are involved in accidents or injuries should expect even harsher penalties opposed upon conviction. For more information regarding one’s specific state and how the sanctions are applied there, click here and connect with a specific state government website.
Readers who are interested in estimating the amount of alcohol it would take to raise their BAC level to any particular percentage are encouraged to refer to one of the numerous BAC calculators available online. These calculators can give an estimate, but may not reflect the true BAC measurement that would occur when an individual is actually out drinking alcohol in the real world. Other variables can influence in individual’s BAC, such as the amount of time over which an individual consumes a particular amount of alcohol, if they eat food, differences in metabolism, etc. A fairly reliable online BAC calculator is offered by the Cleveland Clinic.
Determination of Drunk Driving in Different Countries
As might be expected, not every country adheres to the same definition of DUI as the United States. The BAC limits that define drunken driving in other countries are outlined below:
- In Canada, the BAC legal limit is 0.08%. Canada has very strict laws and penalties for drunk driving with very little leeway for offenders.
- In China, a BAC level at or over 0.02% and under 0.08% can result in penalties. A BAC over 0.08% can result in significant fines and mandatory imprisonment. Drivers under the influence of alcohol at any level who cause death or serious accidents may have their driver’s license suspended for life. In Hong Kong, the level is 0.05%.
- In France, the legal limit is a BAC of 0.05% with very strict sanctions for violations.
- In Great Britain, testing methods are different. The limits are established at 80 mg/100 ml alcohol in blood, 35 μg/100 ml alcohol in breath, or 107 mg/100 ml alcohol in urine, which work out to only a few drinks at the most.
- In Japan, a BAC level at or over 0.03% is the standard for legal intoxication. Japan also has extremely harsh penalties associated with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.
- In Mexico, the BAC limit is 0.08%, with very harsh penalties if convicted.
- Many countries in the Middle East, such as Iran and Iraq, have zero-tolerance laws regarding BAC levels and operating a motor vehicle. Penalties for violating these laws can be extremely harsh.