10 states that are the toughest on drunken drivers
No matter where in the nation you belly up to the bar — New York or Nevada, Oregon or Ohio — getting behind the wheel after you’ve downed too many drinks is always a dumb decision. Across the United States, 900,000 people get arrested for that dumb decision each year.
However, where you get pulled over makes a big difference in how harshly you’re punished, according to a recent report issued by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a nonprofit advocacy group. The report compares drunken driving laws in all 50 states.
InsuranceQuotes.com checks out the 10 states that crack down hardest on driving drunk.
MADD’s report graded states according to whether they had followed four guidelines designed to curtail drunken driving:
• Conducting periodic sobriety checkpoints.
• Holding no-refusal events that force drivers to submit to field sobriety tests.
• Letting law enforcement officers revoke a driver’s license on the spot when they suspect a driver is intoxicated.
• Imposing tougher penalties for those who drive drunk with a child in the car.
• Mandating that convicted drunken drivers get ignition interlock devices installed in their cars while they’re on probation.
Arizona is one of just a handful of states that have enacted all five of those guidelines. That status gives Arizona the highest rating — five stars — in the MADD report.
Not only that, but Arizona piles on the fines for DWI. First-time offenders can expect a base fine of $250, a state surcharge of $200, a probation surcharge of $10, a prison construction assessment of $500 and a DWI assessment of $500. For second-time offenders, most fees more than double, so drunken drivers can expect fines of up to $3,400.
Lawmakers in the Land of Lincoln have instituted tougher penalties for those who drive drunk with a child in the car — an extra $1,000 tacked onto the regular $2,500 fine, plus up to 18 months in jail.
Furthermore, Illinois legislators declared that convicted drunken drivers who want to get behind the wheel while they’re on probation must have an ignition interlock device — a kind of instant breathalyzer — installed in their cars. When the driver gets behind the wheel, he breathes into the interlock; if his blood-alcohol content (BAC) indicates that he’s been drinking, the engine won’t start.
MADD hands Illinois a five-star rating.
Kansas gets a five-star rating from MADD when it comes to sobriety checkpoints, no-refusal events, administration license revocation, child endangerment laws and mandatory ignition interlocks. Fines range from $500 to $1,000 for first-time offenders, but the 48-hour minimum jail time often can be traded for 100 hours of community service.
In the 15 states with mandatory ignition interlock laws, including Nebraska, a driver who’s been slapped with a DWI must pony up the cash for the device: on average, $50 to $200 for installation, and an additional $50 to $100 monthly rental fee.
Usually, drivers must have the interlock in place for the length of their license suspension, which in Nebraska can be up to six months, or for drivers caught with BAC levels above 0.15 percent, up to a year. In Nebraska, you’ll also pay an extra $47.50 just to get a state permit for the device.
Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for MADD, says that requiring ignition interlock devices is far more effective than simply stripping offenders of their licenses. “Seventy-five percent of the time, offenders will drive anyway, because they need to get to work,” Harris says. “With ignition interlocks, they’re taught to drive sober.”
Harris’ group gives Nebraska a five-star rating.
If you’re over 21 and not on probation for drunken driving, you can legally refuse to undergo a field sobriety test if you’re pulled over. But beware.
“Once drivers are actually arrested, then they would have to submit to either a breath test or a blood test,” says Kellee Parker, an attorney with the Parker Law Center in Los Angeles. “If they don’t, at that point they go down as a refusal, and there are increased penalties both in court and at the DMV.”
In Utah, for instance, refusing a sobriety test increases a license suspension sixfold, from 90 days to a mandatory 18 months.
Utah earns five stars in MADD’s ratings.
Arkansas, which earns four stars from MADD, is among 29 states with laws that let health insurers refuse to cover treatment for injuries suffered while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In other words, if you have a car accident in Arkansas while you’re driving drunk, you’ll be on your own for your hospital bills.
In Arkansas, first-time DWI offenders also undergo mandatory counseling for alcohol abuse. Drivers pay for that as well; the fees vary.
In Colorado, a four-star state, getting convicted of driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher earns you at least a three-month suspension of your driver’s license. To get it lifted, Colorado (and all but six other states) requires you to file an SR-22 form, which certifies that you have auto insurance. It’s proof of insurance, not a policy. Many insurers specialize in selling high-priced coverage to SR-22 drivers.
In Colorado, you’ll pay a $95 fee to have your driver’s license reinstated after a DWI.
Defending yourself against a DWI charge is expensive anywhere. In some cases, a drunken driving suspect can face legal bills of $10,000. Hiring a lawyer to defend you will be more expensive if you’re hit with a felony rather than a misdemeanor.
In nearly every state, a first-offense DWI is a misdemeanor; in most states, a third or fourth offense within a certain period of time, often 10 years, turns the charge into a felony. In four-star Delaware, your third drunken driving conviction is an automatic felony, no matter how long it’s been since your previous arrests.
Getting convicted of a DWI can turn your auto insurance situation into a nightmare. Your insurer may refuse to renew your coverage, and “if you lose your insurance from one company, you’ll have a hard time finding another to insure you,” says Carole Walker, executive director of the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. “Even if you stay with your company, you may end up paying double or triple.”
That holds true in every other state. In Florida, which earns four stars on MADD’s scale, drunk drivers face plenty of other financial penalties, including a $500 minimum fine, which soars to $2,000 for a BAC of 0.15 or above. Florida also charges a community service fine of $10 an hour, and most drivers convicted of DUI get 50 hours of community service. The community service comes with a $500 fee.
MADD has called on every state to make it a felony to drive drunk with a passenger under age 16 in the car, says Harris, the MADD official.
The model law: New York’s Leandra’s Law, named for 11-year-old Leandra Rosado, who was killed when an SUV she was riding in crashed because the driver was drunk. So far, three other states have adopted similar laws: Oklahoma, Arizona and Texas. In New York, which gets four stars from MADD, driving drunk with a child passenger turns the offense into a felony, carrying a fine of up to $5,000 and as many as four years in prison.