Everyone knows drinking and driving is a dangerous mix. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 10,000 people in the US die in alcohol-related crashes each year and hundreds of thousands more are injured and maimed. Even if you can avoid a crash, getting a DUI can derail your life. You may have your license suspended, spend time in jail up to a year for a first DUI in some states and pay thousands of dollars in fines and legal costs.
You'll also see your car insurance rates skyrocket, with the higher premium costing tens of thousands of dollars over time. Doing your part to cut back on DUIs can save you serious money. More important: It could save your life -- or someone else's.
If you're arrested for drunk driving, brace yourself. Fines vary, but you can expect a huge hit to your pocketbook. The state of California estimates that a single DUI can cost a minimum of $45,000, including $4,000 in fines and an extra $40,000 in higher-cost car insurance over 13 years. On top of that, your license will be suspended for at least 30 days and you may end up performing community service, paying for an ignition interlock or even serving jail time.
And if that seems high, be aware that penalties are still higher in many other states. Even though a 26-year study published in Accident Analysis and Prevention found that that jail had "little effect" on deterrence, some states have mandatory jail time for even a first-time DUI. And Texas has assigned some repeat DUI offenders to life in prison, even for accidents in which no one was seriously hurt.
In spite of the overwhelming risks, about 1.5 million people are arrested for driving under the influence each year, according to the Insurance Information Institute. This usually means the drivers had a blood alcohol level (BAC) of at least 0.08 the federal cut-off for driving under the influence (DUI). In many states you can also get a DUI for driving under the influence of drugs, including marijuana or cocaine.
The impact of impaired driving goes beyond numbers, says Michael Barry, vice president of media relations at the Insurance Information Institute. "Many of these accidents even when there's no fatality involve significant property damage and bodily injury," he says.
How to prevent a DUI
The good news is that drunk driving fatalities fell 27 percent between 2005 and 2014, thanks to public awareness, increased enforcement and the use of safety belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Over the past four decades, law enforcement agencies and public safety groups have tried a number of strategies to stop people from getting behind the wheel after drinking. Public education, school-based campaigns, drug treatment, "zero tolerance" laws for teens, better enforcement and mandatory ignition interlocks a device that prevents your car from starting if your BAC approaches the legal limit all work to save lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The best way to prevent a DUI: don't drink and drive, period. But if you are one of the tens of millions of Americans who drink socially, you are probably wondering 'how much is too much?' and there isn't an easy answer. The happy hour after work, the Sunday football party at a friend's house, or your cousin's wedding can all end with a DUI if you're not careful. That's why experts recommend that you don't drive after drinking even one beer or glass of wine.
To be on the safe side, experts recommend that you agree on a designated driver before the drinking begins. If that's not an option, have a back-up plan: taxis, Uber, Lyft, calling a friend to come and get you or a sleepover. Also, don't ever mix alcohol with prescription drugs, as this could lead to greater impairment, even if you've just had a small amount of alcohol.
What to do if you get a DUI
If you've been arrested for a DUI, what will happen next will depend on the state you're in, your level of impairment and whether this is your first offense.
If you want to fight your DUI charge, plea bargain or seek an accommodation, you will probably want to hire an attorney. There are defense attorneys across the country that specialize in DUI cases, and you will want one who is very familiar with the law and common practices in your state. The National Motorists Association has a list of DUI attorneys on its website.
Once you've paid your fines, attended your classes, served your sentence and gotten your unrestricted license back, you may still feel the pain of your DUI because it will remain on your record for years. There are two sets of records you should be concerned about: your DMV record and your criminal record. Every state has different laws regarding how long a DUI will remain on both sets of records.
Many states allow you have your criminal record expunged (erased) a certain number of years after your conviction and punishment. "In California, you can usually have your criminal record expunged after three years," says Josh Dale of the California DUI Attorneys Association.
"After you've completed your punishments you can go to court and file a 1203.4 petition to cleanse your record of the DUI. Then you can say you [don't have] a DUI." However, there's a catch: "You can't seal your record from the DMV. So you might have to explain it if your employer looks at your DMV record and sees the DUI."
Other states may allow diversion programs, in which your DUI charge is dropped if you agree to enter a rehabilitation program.
As insurance groups make clear, your insurance rates will go up if you get a DUI. The only question is by how much, and for how long. This will depend on your insurance company, the state you live in, and your overall driving record. Plan on paying higher rates for at least three years, but in some places it will be five to 10 or more.
If you had a good driver discount prior to the DUI, you are likely to lose that as well. California state law, for example, doesn't allow you to get a good driver discount on your insurance for 10 years after a DUI.
Finally, be aware that an estimated 37 states have "alcohol exclusion laws" on the books, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Association. This means that insurance companies can refuse to pay for medical treatment if you were injured while driving drunk.
All things considered, driving under the influence clearly isn't worth the risk. If you're concerned about your finances, your criminal record and your health and safety as well as that of everyone around you -- you'll stay sober on the road.
The True Cost of a DUI. State of California. http://www2.courtinfo.ca.gov/stopteendui/parents/cost/how-much-does-a-dui-cost.cfm
Alcohol Impaired Driving. http://www.ghsa.org/state-laws/issues/alcohol%20impaired%20driving
Traffic/DUI Attorneys. National Motorists Association. https://www.motorists.org/attorneys/
Drug-Impaired Driving Laws. Governors Highway Traffic Association. http://www.ghsa.org/state-laws/issues/drug%20impaired%20driving