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If you’ve driven a vehicle after consuming alcohol, you should be aware of the laws governing permissible blood alcohol content (BAC) levels. Every state has a limit on the maximum BAC allowed for an individual to operate a vehicle, as well as other rules surrounding alcohol consumption.

Though the safest option is to never operate a vehicle if you’ve been drinking, it may be helpful to learn more about BAC legal limits, DUI conditions, and additional state laws governing blood alcohol levels.

BAC Definition

Your BAC is the percent of alcohol in your blood, which is used by law enforcement to determine an individual’s level of intoxication from alcohol. There are many helpful blood alcohol level charts online describing the amount of alcohol it takes to make a person drunk depending on their weight.

Other factors, such as the amount of food or water consumed, can make a difference. Only a science-based test can tell you what your actual blood alcohol level is. It can be measured exactly in one of three ways:

  • Breath test (often referred by the product name “Breathalyzer”)
  • Urine test
  • Blood test

What Do DUI, DWI, And OUI Mean?

There are a few acronyms for impaired driving. You’ve heard of a DUI, but what about DWI, or the even rarer OUI? They generally mean the same thing–operating a vehicle under the influence of a substance–but there are nuances.

  • DUI stands for “driving under the influence” of alcohol or other substances
  • DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated” and refers specifically to drunk driving or driving under the influence of alcohol
  • OUI stands for “operating while under the influence” of alcohol or other substances
  • OWI stands for “operating while intoxicated” or “operating while impaired” by alcohol or other substances

States use their acronym of choice, which can change based on the jurisdiction. For example, Alaska charges drunk driving under the state code as a DUI, but the city of Anchorage charges drunk driving as an OUI.

Penalties For Drunk Driving

Did you know you can be charged with drunk driving even if you test below the legal limit? That’s because your BAC does not have to reach .08 percent before you can be impaired, and therefore drive erratically. For example, in Arkansas, a BAC of .04-.08 percent is not a per se DUI, but can be evidence of drunk driving.

Conversely, you can also be charged with drunk driving if you’re above the legal limit but you don’t “feel” drunk and you’re not driving erratically. States, understandably, want to discourage drunk driving by all legal means possible.

It may be helpful to know that the government ties federal highway funding to the condition that states set the legal BAC limit at .08 percent. States are free to enact additional drunk driving statutes. Utah, for example, set a lower BAC limit at .05 percent.

Most states now have three levels at which drivers can be charged with drunk driving, depending on a combination of factors: Zero tolerance, per se, and enhanced penalty.

Zero Tolerance

Zero tolerance laws set lower BAC limits for underage drivers. In states with zero tolerance laws, the legal BAC limit for a 17-year old driver, for instance, will be much lower than .08 percent–usually .00 or .02 percent. These laws are meant to heavily discourage underage drinking and driving.

Per Se

The term ‘per se’ means “by itself,” or “inherently.” Under per se DUI laws, if a driver is pulled over and found to have a BAC at or above the legal limit–.08 percent–that person gets a DUI even if they’re not noticeably impaired or haven’t had a traffic violation. Every state’s per se BAC limit is .08 percent.

Enhanced Penalty

Some states have levels of DUI charges which become more serious at certain blood alcohol levels. Many states have set enhanced penalties if a driver is found to have a BAC of .15 percent or .18 percent.

Another common term in drunk driving law is “implied consent,” which means if you’re lawfully pulled over for impaired driving, you consent to having your BAC tested by virtue of being a driver. Implied consent has been enacted in every state, and automatic penalties can apply if you refuse to take a BAC test when pulled over.

Chart Of State BAC Levels

Below are the BAC legal limits by state, whether the state has an implied consent law, and links to more information. Remember that jurisdictions such as states and counties can handle drunk driving charges differently, but the legal limit everywhere is .08 percent (the one exception being Utah).

State Per Se Enhanced Zero Tolerance Commercial Vehicle Drivers
Alabama .08 .15 .02 .04; .02 for school bus drivers
Alaska .08 .00 .04
Arizona .08 .15 .00 .04
Arkansas .08 .02 .04
California .08 .15 and .2 .01 .04
Colorado .08 .15 .02 .04
Connecticut .08 .02 .04
Delaware .08 .15 .00 .04
District of Columbia .08 .2, .25, and .3 .00 .04
Florida .08 .2 .02 .04
Georgia .08 .15 .02 .04
Hawaii .08 .02 .04
Idaho .08 .2 .02 .04
Illinois .08 .16 .00 .04
Indiana .08 .15 .02 .04
Iowa .08 .15 .02 .04
Kansas .08 .15 .02 .04
Kentucky .08 .15 .02 .04
Louisiana .08 .15 and .2 .02 .04
Maine .08 .15 .00 .04
Maryland .08 .15 .02 .04
Massachusetts .08 .2 .02 .04
Michigan .08 .17 .02 .04
Minnesota .08 .16 .00 .04, .00 for school bus drivers
Mississippi .08 .02 .04
Missouri .08 .15 .02 .04
Montana .08 .16 .02 .04
Nebraska .08 .15 .02 .04
Nevada .08 .18 .02 .04
New Hampshire .08 .16 .02 .04
New Jersey .08 .10 .01 .04
New Mexico .08 .16 .02 .04
New York .08 .18 .02 .04
North Carolina .08 .15 .00 .04, .00 for school bus drivers
North Dakota .08 .18 .02 .04
Ohio .08 .17 .02 .04
Oklahoma .08 .15 .02 .04
Oregon .08 .15 .00 .04
Pennsylvania .08 .10 and .16 .02 .04, .02 for school bus drivers
Rhode Island .08 .10 and .15 .02 .04
South Carolina .08 .10 and .16 .02 .04
South Dakota .08 .17 .02 .04
Tennessee .08 .2 .02 .04
Texas .08 .15 .02 .04
Utah .05 .16 .02 .04
Vermont .08 .02 .04, .02 for school bus drivers
Virginia .08 .15 and .2 .02 .04
Washington .08 .15 .02 .04
West Virginia .08 .15 .02 .04
Wisconsin .08 .17, .2 and .25 .02 .04
Wyoming .08 .15 .02 .04

Further Guidance Is Available For Your State's Law On Blood Alcohol Levels

If you’ve had an issue with impaired driving or are curious about legal limits for alcohol and driving, an experienced attorney can help you better understand your legal concerns.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information, but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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