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Drunk Driving Laws by State: Which Ones Are the Toughest on DUIs?

— August 3, 2022

The issue of jail time is a bit more nuanced than a license suspension. Not only does this vary by state, but it also varies by the crime.

Earlier this year, we considered how states across the country have different open container laws, ranging from very strict laws to no laws whatsoever. While drinking while driving is treated differently in each state, no state allows for drunk driving without legal consequences. But how much variety exists between the states regarding DUI (driving under the influence) charges? Here’s how DUIs are handled throughout the country and which states are the toughest on them. 

What Constitutes a DUI?

One of the first things we have to realize about DUIs is that we might be guilty of limiting its definition to alcohol. While alcohol is certainly the leading culprit of drunk driving in America, the decades of change regarding substance abuse and legislation have expanded what DUI actually means. In addition to alcohol, many states define DUI as driving under the influence of illegal drugs. 

We might expect that someone would be charged for driving under the influence of meth or cocaine, but the list gets even more complicated. DUIs can even expand to prescription drugs like Xanax and Ambien. With benzos like Xanax being one of the most prescribed drugs in the country and Ambien ranking as the number one sleeping pill on the market, it’s easy to see how this issue becomes more relevant across the board with each passing year. 

But even this isn’t enough to settle the issue. Some states have even opted to distinguish alcohol and other substances while using DUI as a broad term and using DWI (driving while intoxicated) to speak specifically to alcohol use. Then there’s a blanket phrase DWAI/combination, which refers to driving while ability is impaired by a combined influence of drugs or alcohol. These varieties might seem too nuanced to keep up with, which is why states may vary in whether they use these two terms separately. 

However, the legal ramifications are not particularly good regardless of the length of the acronym. One additional point to know regarding DUIs and alcohol: most people assume that the legal limit is .08 percent across the board, but in 2019 Utah became the first state to change its legal limit down to .05 percent for DUI laws. 

Strict States: Least to Greatest

Man in handcuffs; image via Pxhere, CC0.
Man in handcuffs; image via Pxhere, CC0.

Please note that these laws can change, and depending on when you read this, some laws may have changed from state to state. It is important to find the most up-to-date laws, with your local state’s Department of Transportation website being a good place to look. These are based on the Governors Highway Safety Association (current as of April 2022). 

Overall, Louisiana and Pennsylvania are the only states that do not require an administrative license suspension on the first offense. Compare that to Tennessee and Georgia, both of which will suspend a license on the first offense for one year, or South Carolina, which will suspend a license for one month for a blood alcohol content level of .15 percent or higher. All other states fluctuate between 30 and 180 days with additional suspension if someone is driving with a BAC upward of .15 or under 21 years of age (New Mexico). 

The issue of jail time is a bit more nuanced than a license suspension. Not only does this vary by state, but it also varies by the crime. While states, including Alabama, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, have no minimum jail time, this does not necessarily mean you won’t go to jail for a DUI. It only means there is no standard or required minimum for a DUI. For that reason, we can consider these states as potentially the least strict for jail time, but that’s only potentially the case. 

In most cases, states have a range that either gives a minimum or a maximum jail time for a DUI charge. For example, Alaska has a 72-hour minimum but no maximum listed. Georgia has a range from a 24-hour minimum to a one-year maximum. Arizona ranks as the most strict of all states for first-offense DUI, with a 10-day minimum jail time. Fines also vary heavily, with most states holding an average of $750 and $1000. However, Oregon is the most strict in this case, with fines starting at $1000 and reaching up to a maximum of $6,250.

Why It Matters

On average, nearly 30 people die from an alcohol-related crash in the United States every day. It’s one of the most preventable causes of death, but it’s also one of the most reliable trends year after year. States that have very strict DUI laws seem to do so because of how deadly drunk driving is, regardless of if it involves alcohol, drugs, or a combination of both. The motivation is to deter people from taking the chance of driving while under the influence. On the other hand, there is no way to legislate people into driving sober, and states with the least strict laws regarding DUIs are probably motivated to spend money in ways that will have a much higher return. 

Regardless of which state you live in and what your view of the laws is, the only time-tested approach to outsmarting these laws is to avoid driving while under the influence altogether. However, if this seems beyond your ability to do, it is important to seek professional help to detox from alcohol or any substance that would impair your ability to drive. Your life is important enough to protect, and so are the lives of others on the road.


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Delphi Health Group. (n.d.). Ambien Addiction Guide. Retrieved

Forbes Advisor. (2022 Jun 7). DUI vs. DWI: What’s the Difference? Retrieved

Washington Post. (2018 Dec 14). Utah to implement the Nation’s Strictest DUI Limit, First State to go to .05. Retrieved

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