Drunk and Impaired Driving Offenses and Penalties

Drunk driving occurs when a person operates an automobile after consuming alcoholic beverages to the extent that the person's ability to drive a motor vehicle is impaired. Impaired driving encompasses both driving impaired by the consumption of alcohol and by medications or other intoxicating substances.

Drunk and impaired driving may be referenced by a number of different names or abbreviations, depending upon what state you are in. Common names are "Driving While Impaired" (DWI), "Driving Under the Influence" (DUI), or "Operating a motor vehicle while Under the Influence of intoxicating Liquor" (OUIL). An impaired driving charge can also result from the use of other intoxicants, including prescription medication.

Can I Be Charged With Impaired Driving Even If My Driving Is Perfect?

Some people charged with drunk or impaired driving protest that their driving was fine, and believe either that the officer made up an excuse to pull them over or that the driver error that the officer describes as the basis of the traffic stop was appropriate or had nothing to do with their driving.

However if your blood alcohol content exceeds the legal limit of 0.08%, you can be charged and convicted even if there is no further evidence that your driving was impaired as a result of intoxication. Further, you may be stopped because there is a mechanical problem with your motor vehicle or investigated after an accident that was not your fault.

If the officer finds you to appear intoxicated (usual signs: slurred speech, glassy or bloodshot eyes, poor balance, conspicuous odor of alcohol, lack of coordination, difficulty comprehending instructions, clumsiness or lack of coordination, combativeness, and disorientation), he may investigate further even if the traffic stop was not the result of a moving violation.

If you would like additional information on what happens during the investigation of a possible drunk driving case, and possible charges for drunk driving offenses, please see these associated articles:

What Makes The Police Think A Driver May Be Drunk or Impaired?

There are many factors that the police look at when evaluating whether a driver is impaired as a result of intoxication:

Lack of Driving Skill

  • Making wide turns,
  • Almost striking another vehicle, particularly if it is parked or stopped,
  • Almost striking an object,
  • Braking erratically, or making sudden stops in the traffic lane,
  • Sudden acceleration or deceleration,
  • Driving very slowly.

Lack of Coordination

  • Swerving, weaving, or drifting,
  • Straddling the "fog line" or the "center line" of the road,
  • Slow response to traffic signals.

Single Vehicle Accidents

  • Driving off the roadway,
  • Striking a stationary object or tree.

Lack of Due Care

  • Following another car too closely,
  • Turning suddenly,
  • Driving with the headlights off,
  • Stopping inappropriately in the roadway (even on the shoulder).

Major Driver Errors

  • Driving the wrong way, into opposing traffic,
  • Failure to stop for traffic signals,
  • Making illegal turns.

Interestingly, drivers who are excessively tired can generally be distinguished from drivers who are drunk, as drivers who are falling asleep tend to swerve in the same direction (e.g., they will consistently swerve left as they fall asleep, suddenly wake up, and then straighten out their cars), while drunk drivers tend to swerve in both directions. Also, excessive speed is not ordinarily considered a sign of impaired driving.

Can I Represent Myself Against Drunk Driving Charges?

Generally speaking, it is not a good idea to try to represent yourself against any criminal charges. Drunk driving may seem like a relatively minor offense, but it is in fact one of the more complicated criminal charges for prosecutors to bring. There are many technical defenses that an attorney may be able to raise, to assist you either in avoiding conviction, negotiating a lesser charge, or in reducing the consequences of conviction.

What Happens To My Automobile Insurance?

In most cases your rates will be increased significantly. While this will vary from state to state, depending upon state regulation and the policies of your insurance company, it is rare for drunk drivers to avoid an increase in the cost of their insurance.

It is difficult to shop around for cheaper insurance after a drunk driving conviction, as most insurance companies will classify you as a "high risk" driver, and will charge high insurance rates. Sometimes, your insurance will be cancelled. If this happens, you will likely have to pay a large amount of money to obtain coverage with a different insurance company.

Copyright © 2000 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 5, 2018.