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Underage DUI: Zero Tolerance Laws

You didn’t feel drunk. In fact, you were under the legal limit for blood-alcohol content required for a normal DUI. The problem is, you were also under the legal drinking age. There’s a different set of legal standards when it comes to drunk drivers who are under 21. This is a brief introduction underage DUI laws.

What is Zero Tolerance?

It is illegal for people under the age of 21 to purchase and possess alcohol in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia. And while driving under the influence of alcohol (normally 0.08 percent or higher blood-alcohol concentration) is illegal for all motorists, all states have so-called "zero-tolerance" laws for underage DUI offenses.

Zero-tolerance laws make it a criminal DUI offense for drivers under the age of 21 to drive with even a small amount of alcohol in their system, ranging from 0.00 to 0.02 percent BAC depending on the state. In light of such laws, even an innocent glass of wine with dinner could subject a young driver with a DUI charge. But the intent of these laws is to combat the very real dangers of underage drinking.

Why Have Zero Tolerance Laws?

Nearly one-third of all deaths of 15- to 20-year-olds are the result of a motor vehicle crash and about 35 percent of those fatalities are alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The alcohol involvement rate for young drivers is roughly twice that of over-21 drivers, according to the NHTSA, while underage drinking at even low levels presents a greater risk of fatal crashes.

The National Highway Systems Designation Act of 1995 mandated that states consider a 0.02 percent BAC (or lower) for under-21 drivers to be driving under the influence in order to qualify for Federal-Aid Highway Funds. To comply, as all states eventually have, they had to set 0.02 percent BAC as what is known as a “per se offense.” That means police don't have to prove intoxication as long as the driver is above the stated limit.

An NHTSA study comparing the first 12 states to implement zero tolerance laws with 12 other states found that those with the law had a 20% decline in fatal single-car nighttime crashes with drivers under 21. These are generally the most likely to involve alcohol. Furthermore, the biggest declines in fatal crashes occurred in states with underage BAC limits of 0.02 percent or less, while less impact was seen in states with higher BAC limits.

Beyond the obvious risks to health and safety posed by underage drinking and driving, DUI offenses can have long ranging implications that reach far into a young driver's future. An early drunk driving conviction can have an effect on employment background checks as well as car insurance coverage.

More Information

Facing an underage DUI charge can be a scary prospect. If you have been charged with DUI, or you want to fully understand the consequences you might face, you can consult with an experienced DUI attorney. If you would like to read more introductory information on this topic you can visit FindLaw’s DUI section.

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