Operating a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol is a serious offense. Depending on local laws, it may be referred to as DUI (driving under the influence), DWI (driving while intoxicated), or OWI (operating while intoxicated). Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated is illegal in all 50 states, and DUI/DWI accounts for more than 1 million arrests in the United States each year. While most people associate DUI with alcohol, the law can also apply to intoxication with drugs, including prescription drugs. For alcohol, the threshold of a 0.08% blood-alcohol content (BAC) constitutes a criminal offense without having to prove that the driver was suffering any impairment. In cases involving drugs or a BAC below 0.08%, a police officer may still make an arrest if it can be established that the driver was impaired.
The statistics surrounding alcohol-related driving accidents are staggering. On average, 28 people are killed each day in alcohol-related accidents. Nearly 30 times that many people are injured. In a 2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, as many as 4.2 million people admited to having driven drunk within the past month. By the time a person is first arrested for drunk driving, they have driven an average of 80 times under the influence previously, research has shown.
Alcohol accounts for the largest percentage of DUI/DWI cases. For this reason, the most established DUI laws are centered around alcohol. As a standard practice, if a police officer suspects a driver is under the influence of alcohol, they will administer a breath test to establish the driver's BAC. All 50 states have now adopted a 0.08% BAC limit to operate a vehicle. Any driver found to be driving with a BAC greater than 0.08% can be arrested without having to prove impairment. Drivers with a BAC lower than 0.08% but greater than 0% can still be arrested for DUI if it is evident to the police officer that the driver is impaired.
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Alcohol is not the only substance that can lead to DUI. Illicit drugs like marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, and methamphetamine can also impair a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Prescription drugs, especially those taken for pain or anxiety, can also have a serious impact on a driver's abilities. This is why DUI law commonly includes these substances. Establishing impairment with these substances is not as simple as with alcohol, as field testing is not as accurate as the breath test for alcohol.
When any impairment is suspected, a police officer will have the driver perform a field sobriety test. This test includes several tasks for the driver to complete to measure balance, coordination, dexterity, and cognitive function. After administering these tests, a police officer can typically establish whether or not there is probable cause for a DUI arrest. More tests are conducted at the police station, where law enforcement can perform a drug screening to be evaluated by a lab for the presence of substances that may cause impairment.
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Signs of Impairment
Police officers will typically administer field sobriety tests when they believe a driver to be impaired. These tests often include tasks such as a one-leg stand, walking heel-to-toe in a straight line, and following an object horizontally with your eyes. These tests are designed to measure the cognitive and physical abilities needed to operate a vehicle. Officers will also interview the driver, looking for characteristics like slurred speech, incoherence, glossy or bloodshot eyes, or an odor of alcohol. Police officers may use a combination of any of these tests as well as a breath test to establish impairment in the driver.
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Effects on Driving While Under the Influence
Intoxication by drugs or alcohol can have a variety of negative effects on a person's abilities. Drivers may display slower reflexes, leading to an inability to avoid unpredictable driving scenarios. Research shows that reaction time is affected at a BAC as low as 0.05%. Drivers under the influence may also experience blurred vision and reduced depth perception, further limiting their ability to operate a vehicle safely. Reduced coordination negative impacts a driver's ability to maintain a straight driving path, which leads to swerving back and forth on the road. Finally, intoxication limits an individual's ability to concentrate and may lead to inattention to the driver's surroundings.
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What You Can Do About Drunk Driving
Brian Joslyn, a Dayton criminal defense attorney advised that the first thing any person can do to prevent drunk driving is to make sure to never do it themselves. Establish a designated driver in drinking situations. Take a taxi or use a ride-sharing service to get home safely. Understand the effects of any new prescription medication before getting behind the wheel. And be available for friends when they need assistance in getting home. Volunteer to be the designated driver, and prevent others from getting behind the wheel after drinking.