Drunk Driving Accidents: Legal Limits and Next Steps

Doug Mann

You probably already know that the legal limit for drunk driving is a BAC of 0.08. If you get pulled over and your BAC is higher than that, it’s a DUI. That limit is over 0 for a reason – so you can have a glass of wine at dinner and then drive home. But what happens when you’re under the legal limit and get pulled over or get in a wreck? Does that change your liability?

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Table of Contents
  1. Pulled Over After A Drink
  2. Car Accidents After A Drink
  3. Your BAC level is part of the police report
  4. The Bottom Line

Pulled Over After A Drink

First, let’s take a look at what happens when you get pulled over but are under the legal limit. In general, the police have to have a reason to pull you over. That reason is a “primary offense.” Say it’s because you were speeding or driving erratically. Especially if it’s nighttime or if the officer can smell alcohol, they’re likely to ask if you’ve had a drink. It’s always a good idea to be honest with the police but they can ask for a sobriety test even if you deny it. That may mean a breathalyzer test to determine your BAC and a field sobriety test to determine if your ability to drive is affected.

If you don’t pass, you may be charged with a DUI – even with a BAC under 0.08. That’s because 0.08 is the maximum allowable BAC and automatically qualifies as a DUI. However, you can still be charged with a DUI if you’re “under the influence of alcohol” – regardless of the amount. If you do pass and your BAC is under 0.08, it’s probably not a DUI since the alcohol was not affecting your driving.

If you’re driving safely but get pulled over for another reason, like a broken tail light, then you’re unlikely to have to deal with the alcohol question at all. If it does come up, you’ll be fine if you can pass a field sobriety test.

Car Accidents After A Drink

So it’s not a DUI if it doesn’t affect your driving, but that’s not the only concern. What if you get in a car crash after having a drink? Does it affect your liability? After a crash, the insurance company will determine how much of the damage it will cover. If one party feels that decision is wrong, they can sue for the compensation they feel is appropriate. Then, the court is going to dig into the role alcohol played in the crash.

If The Crash Was Your Fault…

If police have any reason to suspect that a driver involved in a crash is drunk, they’re going to administer a breathalyzer test. If you’re over a 0.08, you’ll likely face DUI charges. The results of the test will go into the police report and may also affect your criminal liability for the outcome of the car crash. That’s because the other party may be able to use your BAC as proof that you were driving negligently or recklessly. If someone was hurt or killed due to your negligence or recklessness, you could face criminal charges for it.

If you’re under a 0.08, the police will likely administer a field sobriety test. If you fail, you’ll likely face DUI charges and the same legal issues we described above – it’ll be treated pretty much like you tested 0.08 or higher.

Your BAC level is part of the police report

If you pass, however, the results are less clear. Your BAC will still go into the police report and the other party may still try to use it to prove you must have been negligent or reckless. However, that’s a more difficult case to prove since your field sobriety test showed that your ability to drive was not impaired. Your insurer, which covers the cost of the accident if it’s your fault, may be more likely to settle (and for a higher amount) in this case and you may face a higher increase in your premiums than if your BAC had been 0.

If The Crash Was Not Your Fault…

If the other driver caused the crash, your BAC becomes much less relevant. Again, if you’re tested and it’s higher than 0.08 or fail a field sobriety test, you may still face DUI charges. But you won’t be liable for a crash you didn’t cause just because you had a drink. Say, for example, that you’re stopped at a red light and someone rear-ends you. Your BAC is 0.04. The crash was in no way your fault, no matter what your BAC. The other driver will be held responsible, but you may still face DUI charges if you’re impaired.

If The Cause Is Unclear…

Sometimes there isn’t one clear cause of a crash. Maybe both drivers were distracted or both were driving recklessly. Maybe both drivers had had a drink. If the fault in your crash isn’t clear, things can get complicated. As we talked about above, you may still be on the hook for a DUI if you’re impaired, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically responsible for the crash.

In this case, you’re going to need to work closely with an attorney to determine the causes of the crash and whether your part in it can be linked to having a drink. If so, that can make it harder to get compensation from the insurance company (or to argue that you should have to pay less compensation).

The Bottom Line

The law sets 0.08 as the legal limit because it recognizes that it’s unreasonable (and unnecessary) to prevent people from driving if they’re not impaired. The idea is that lower BACs typically don’t come with serious impairment – but alcohol affects everyone differently and some people may have trouble driving after just one drink.

So, the best course of action is to know your body and know how alcohol affects you. Your BAC doesn’t have to be 0.08 for you to get a DUI – your driving ability just has to be impacted. As always, err on the side of safety and find another way home if you’re worried you might be teetering on the edge. If you’re unsure of how to proceed, contact an attorney today for a free consultation to see if we can help.

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