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Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits: Youth (Underage Operators of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles)

Laws addressing blood alcohol concentration limits applicable to drivers of noncommercial automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles who have not reached the legal drinking age of 21 years.



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Expander Policy Description

(Period Covered: 1/1/1998 through 1/1/2016)

This policy topic covers laws addressing blood alcohol concentration limits applicable to drivers of noncommercial automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles who have not reached the legal drinking age of 21 years.  

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is a measure of the amount of alcohol in a person's bloodstream. BAC is commonly expressed in percentage terms. For instance, having a BAC of 0.08 percent means that a person has eight parts alcohol per 10,000 parts blood in the body. State laws generally specify BAC levels in terms of grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood (often abbreviated as grams per deciliter, or g/dL). BAC levels can be detected by breath, blood, or urine tests. The laws of each jurisdiction specify the preferred or required types of tests used for measurement.

BAC statutes establish criteria for determining when an operator of a vehicle is violating the law. This section provides information on State and Federal BAC laws that apply to drivers of noncommercial automobiles, trucks, and motorcycles who have not reached the legal drinking age (21 years). Laws establishing very low legal BAC limits of .02 g/dL or less for drivers under the legal drinking age of 21 have been widely referred to as "zero-tolerance laws".  Partly as a result of financial incentives established by the Federal government, all States and the District of Columbia have enacted low BAC limits for young drivers.

All jurisdictions have enacted per se BAC laws for youth operating noncommercial motor vehicles.  A per se BAC statute establishes a BAC limit for a violation. If the operator has a BAC level at or above the per se limit, a violation has occurred without regard to other evidence of intoxication or sobriety. In other words, exceeding the BAC limit established in a per se statute is itself a violation.  By limiting the use of evidence by defendants, per se laws make conviction more likely. [1].  

In the past, some States without a per se law established other standards for using BAC levels as evidence of being under the influence of alcohol. In these jurisdictions, the weight given to the BAC evidence varied. Some laws provided that a BAC at or above a particular level created a presumption of being under the influence of alcohol. Other laws provided that such evidence was prima facie evidence of being under the influence, or was admissible in making this determination. These evidentiary standards were even weaker than a presumption. Defendants in jurisdictions without a per se standard could provide evidence that, in spite of the BAC level, they were not under the influence and therefore not in violation. This differentiates other statutes from per se statutes, which provide that exceeding the BAC limit is itself a violation and only the validity of the BAC measurement is at issue.

For historical data, APIS distinguishes between per se and non-per se jurisdictions but does not distinguish the evidentiary weight of BAC evidence in jurisdictions without a per se standard.


[1] Cowan, J. and Joffie, S. "Proof and disproof of alcohol-induced driving impairment through blood alcohol testing," 4 Am. Jur. POF 3d 229 (July 2002).

Expander Explanatory Notes and Limitations for Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits: Youth (Underage Operators of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles)

Explanatory Notes and Limitations Specifically Applicable to Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits: Youth (Underage Operators of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles) 

1. This review examines only the specific BAC laws for underage drivers in each State and the District of Columbia and the specific Federal legislation cited. 

2. This review does not address the following issues related to BAC limit laws:

  • Penalties for violations of BAC laws.
  • State and Federal laws related to enforcement of BAC laws.
  • Provisions covering enhanced sanctions for violators whose BAC exceeds a specified level that is higher than the legal limit (e.g., BAC > 0.20 g/dL).
  • Provisions related to repeat offenders.
  • Provisions that create a rebuttable presumption of impairment or other evidentiary standard at lower levels of BAC than the per se limits.
  • BAC limits applied to operators of commercial motor vehicles.
  • Applicability of BAC limits for youth operators of motor vehicles to other forms of transportation such as snowmobiles and watercraft.
  • Federal law pertaining exclusively to the military.
  • Laws that may pertain to BAC limits for those who operate nonmotorized bicycles.
  • Separate laws for Indian Reservations. Approximately 200 tribes across the Nation have jurisdiction and responsibility for laws affecting their reservations. Many have passed their own BAC laws.

Explanatory Notes and Limitations Applicable to All APIS Policy Topics 

  1. State law may permit local jurisdictions to impose requirements in addition to those mandated by State law. Alternatively, State law may prohibit local legislation on this topic, thereby preempting local powers. For more information on the preemption doctrine, see the About Alcohol Policy page. APIS does not document policies established by local governments. 
     
  2. In addition to statutes and regulations, judicial decisions (case law) also may affect alcohol-related policies. APIS does not review case law except to determine whether judicial decisions have invalidated statutes or regulations that would otherwise affect the data presented in the comparison tables. 
     
  3. APIS reviews published administrative regulations. However, administrative decisions or directives that are not included in a State's published regulatory codes may have an impact on implementation. This possibility has not been addressed by the APIS research. 
     
  4. Statutes and regulations cited in tables on this policy topic may have been amended or repealed after the specific date or time period specified by the site user's search criteria. 
     
  5. If a conflict exists between a statute and a regulation addressing the same legal issue, APIS coding relies on the statute. 
     
  6. A comprehensive understanding of the data presented in the comparison tables for this policy topic requires examination of the applicable Row Notes and Jurisdiction Notes, which can be accessed from the body of the table via links in the Jurisdiction column. 

Expander Federal Law for Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits: Youth (Underage Operators of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles)

(Policies in effect on: 1/1/2016)

In 1995, Congress enacted legislation that required the withholding of a portion of a State's Federal highway funds if the State did not adopt a 0.02 or lower BAC limit for underage operators of motor vehicles [23 U.S.C. § 161]. In 1988, Congress offered supplemental grants to States that enacted BAC limits of 0.02 or less for drivers under the age of 21, under former 23 U.S.C. § 410. By July 14, 1998, all States and the District of Columbia had enacted “per se” laws with BAC limits of 0.02 or less for drivers under 21 years of age.

More recently, Congress passed legislation providing for incentive grants to States that adopt and implement programs to reduce driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or the combination of alcohol and drugs, including programs for improving BAC testing and reporting [23 U.S.C. § 405].

Excerpts from these laws appear below.

 
 

FEDERAL CITATIONS AND RELEVANT TEXT EXCERPTS

United States Code
Title 23 - HIGHWAYS
CHAPTER 1 - FEDERAL-AID HIGHWAYS
§ 161. Operation of motor vehicles by intoxicated minors
 
(a) Withholding of Apportionments for Noncompliance.—
 
(1) Fiscal year 1999.—The Secretary shall withhold 5 percent of the amount required to be apportioned to any State under each of paragraphs (1), (3), and (4) of section 104(b) on October 1, 1998, if the State does not meet the requirement of paragraph (3) on that date.
 
(2) Thereafter.—The Secretary shall withhold 10 percent (including any amounts withheld under paragraph (1)) of the amount required to be apportioned to any State under each of paragraphs (1), (3), and (4) of section 104(b) on October 1, 1999, and on October 1 of each fiscal year thereafter, if the State does not meet the requirement of paragraph (3) on that date.
 
(3) Requirement.—A State meets the requirement of this paragraph if the State has enacted and is enforcing a law that considers an individual under the age of 21 who has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.02 percent or greater while operating a motor vehicle in the State to be driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol.
 
(b) Period of Availability; Effect of Compliance and Noncompliance.—
 
(1) Period of availability of withheld funds.—
 
(A) Funds withheld on or before September 30, 2000.—Any funds withheld under subsection (a) from apportionment to any State on or before September 30, 2000, shall remain available until the end of the third fiscal year following the fiscal year for which the funds are authorized to be appropriated.
 
(B) Funds withheld after September 30, 2000.—No funds withheld under this section from apportionment to any State after September 30, 2000, shall be available for apportionment to the State.
 
(2) Apportionment of withheld funds after compliance.—If, before the last day of the period for which funds withheld under subsection (a) from apportionment are to remain available for apportionment to a State under paragraph (1), the State meets the requirement of subsection (a)(3), the Secretary shall, on the first day on which the State meets the requirement, apportion to the State the funds withheld under subsection (a) that remain available for apportionment to the State.
 
(3) Period of availability of subsequently apportioned funds.—Any funds apportioned pursuant to paragraph (2) shall remain available for expenditure until the end of the third fiscal year following the fiscal year in which the funds are so apportioned. Sums not obligated at the end of that period shall lapse.
 
(4) Effect of noncompliance.—If, at the end of the period for which funds withheld under subsection (a) from apportionment are available for apportionment to a State under paragraph (1), the State does not meet the requirement of subsection (a)(3), the funds shall lapse.
 
 
United States Code
Title 23 - HIGHWAYS
CHAPTER 4 - HIGHWAY SAFETY
§ 405. National priority safety programs
 
(a) General authority.--Subject to the requirements of this section, the Secretary shall manage programs to address national priorities for reducing highway deaths and injuries. Funds shall be allocated according to the following:
(3) Impaired driving countermeasures.-- In each fiscal year, 52.5 percent of the funds provided under this section shall be allocated among States that meet requirements with respect to impaired driving countermeasures (as described in subsection (d)).
* * *
(d) Impaired driving countermeasures.--
(1) In general.--Subject to the requirements under this subsection, the Secretary of Transportation shall award grants to States that adopt and implement--
(A) effective programs to reduce driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or the combination of alcohol and drugs; or
(B) alcohol-ignition interlock laws.
* * *
(3) Eligibility.--
(A) Low-range States.--Low-range States shall be eligible for a grant under this subsection.
(B) Mid-range States.--A mid-range State shall be eligible for a grant under this subsection if--
(i) a statewide impaired driving task force in the State developed a statewide plan during the most recent 3 calendar years to address the problem of impaired driving; or
(ii) the State will convene a statewide impaired driving task force to develop such a plan during the first year of the grant.
(C) High-range States.--A high-range State shall be eligible for a grant under this subsection if the State--
(i)(I) conducted an assessment of the State's impaired driving program during the most recent 3 calendar years; or
(II) will conduct such an assessment during the first year of the grant;
(ii) convenes, during the first year of the grant, a statewide impaired driving task force to develop a statewide plan that--
(I) addresses any recommendations from the assessment conducted under clause (i);
(II) includes a detailed plan for spending any grant funds provided under this subsection; and
(III) describes how such spending supports the statewide program; and
(iii)(I) submits the statewide plan to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the first year of the grant for the agency's review and approval;
(II) annually updates the statewide plan in each subsequent year of the grant; and
(III) submits each updated statewide plan for the agency's review and comment.
(4) Use of grant amounts.--
(A) Required programs.--High-range States shall use grant funds for--
(i) high visibility enforcement efforts; and
(ii) any of the activities described in subparagraph (B) if--
(I) the activity is described in the statewide plan; and
(II) the Secretary approves the use of funding for such activity.
(B) Authorized programs.--Medium-range and low-range States may use grant funds for--
(i) any of the purposes described in subparagraph (A);
(ii) hiring a full-time or part-time impaired driving coordinator of the State's activities to address the enforcement and adjudication of laws regarding driving while impaired by alcohol, drugs, or the combination of alcohol and drugs;
(iii) court support of high visibility enforcement efforts, training and education of criminal justice professionals (including law enforcement, prosecutors, judges, and probation officers) to assist such professionals in handling impaired driving cases, hiring traffic safety resource prosecutors, hiring judicial outreach liaisons, and establishing driving while intoxicated courts;
(iv) alcohol ignition interlock programs;
(v) improving blood-alcohol concentration testing and reporting;
(vi) paid and earned media in support of high visibility enforcement efforts, conducting standardized field sobriety training, advanced roadside impaired driving evaluation training, and drug recognition expert training for law enforcement, and equipment and related expenditures used in connection with impaired driving enforcement in accordance with criteria established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration;
(vii) training on the use of alcohol and drug screening and brief intervention;
(viii) training for and implementation of impaired driving assessment programs or other tools designed to increase the probability of identifying the recidivism risk of a person convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of alcohol and drugs and to determine the most effective mental health or substance abuse treatment or sanction that will reduce such risk;
(ix) developing impaired driving information systems; and
(x) costs associated with a 24-7 sobriety program.
(C) Other programs.--Low-range States may use grant funds for any expenditure designed to reduce impaired driving based on problem identification and may use not more than 50 percent of funds made available under this subsection for any project or activity eligible for funding under section 402. Medium-range and high-range States may use funds for any expenditure designed to reduce impaired driving based on problem identification upon approval by the Secretary.
(5) Grant amount.--
Subject to paragraph (6), the allocation of grant funds to a State under this section for a fiscal year shall be in proportion to the State's apportionment under section 402 for fiscal year 2009.
(6) Additional grants.--
(A) Grants to States with alcohol-ignition interlock laws.--The Secretary shall make a separate grant under this subsection to each State that adopts and is enforcing a mandatory alcohol-ignition interlock law for all individuals convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or of driving while intoxicated.
(B) Grants to States with 24-7 sobriety programs.--The Secretary shall make a separate grant under this subsection to each State that-- (i) adopts and is enforcing a law that requires all individuals convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or of driving while intoxicated to receive a restriction on driving privileges; and (ii) provides a 24-7 sobriety program.
(C) Use of funds.--Grants authorized under subparagraph (A) and subparagraph (B) may be used by recipient States for any eligible activities under this subsection or section 402.
(D) Allocation.--Amounts made available under this paragraph shall be allocated among States described in subparagraph (A) and subparagraph (B) in proportion to the State's apportionment under section 402 for fiscal year 2009.
(E) Funding.-- (i) Funding for grants to States with alcohol-ignition interlock laws.--Not more than 12 percent of the amounts made available to carry out this subsection in a fiscal year shall be made available by the Secretary for making grants under subparagraph (A). (ii) Funding for grants to States with 24-7 sobriety programs.--Not more than 3 percent of the amounts made available to carry out this subsection in a fiscal year shall be made available by the Secretary for making grants under subparagraph (B).
* * *
(7) Definitions.--In this subsection:
(A) 24-7 sobriety program.--The term “24-7 sobriety program” means a State law or program that authorizes a State court or an agency with jurisdiction, as a condition of bond, sentence, probation, parole, or work permit, to--
(i) require an individual who was arrested for, plead guilty to, or was convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs to totally abstain from alcohol or drugs for a period of time; and
(ii) require the individual to be subject to testing for alcohol or drugs--
(I) at least twice per day at a testing location;
(II) by continuous transdermal alcohol monitoring via an electronic monitoring device; or
(III) by an alternate method with the concurrence of the Secretary.
(B) Average impaired driving fatality rate.--The term “average impaired driving fatality rate” means the number of fatalities in motor vehicle crashes involving a driver with a blood alcohol concentration of at least 0.08 percent for every 100,000,000 vehicle miles traveled, based on the most recently reported 3 calendar years of final data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, as calculated in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
(C) High-range state.--The term “high-range State” means a State that has an average impaired driving fatality rate of 0.60 or higher.
(D) Low-range state.--The term “low-range State” means a State that has an average impaired driving fatality rate of 0.30 or lower.
(E) Mid-range state.--The term “mid-range State” means a State that has an average impaired driving fatality rate that is higher than 0.30 and lower than 0.60.
* * *
 
 
United States Code
Title 23 - HIGHWAYS
CHAPTER 4 - HIGHWAY SAFETY
§ 410. Alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures
 
(a) General Authority.—
 
(1) Authority to make grants.—Subject to the requirements of this section, the Secretary shall make grants to States that adopt and implement effective programs to reduce traffic safety problems resulting from individuals driving while under the influence of alcohol. Such grants may only be used by recipient States to implement and enforce such programs.
 
(2) Maintenance of effort.—No grant may be made to a State under this subsection in any fiscal year unless the State enters into such agreements with the Secretary as the Secretary may require to ensure that the State will maintain its aggregate expenditures from all other sources for alcohol traffic safety programs at or above the average level of such expenditures in its 2 fiscal years preceding the date of enactment of the SAFETEA–LU.
 
* * *
 
(b) Eligibility Requirements.—To be eligible for a grant under subsection (a), a State shall—
 
(1) have an alcohol related fatality rate of 0.5 or less per 100,000,000 vehicle miles traveled as of the date of the grant, as determined by the Secretary using the most recent Fatality Analysis Reporting System of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; or
 
(2)(A) for fiscal year 2006 by carrying out 3 of the programs and activities under subsection (c);
 
(B) for fiscal year 2007 by carrying out 4 of the programs and activities under subsection (c); or
 
(C) for each of fiscal years 2008 through 2012 by carrying out 5 of the programs and activities under subsection (c).
 
(c) State Programs and Activities.—The programs and activities referred to in subsection (b) are the following:
 
* * *
 
(6) Underage drinking program.—An effective strategy, as determined by the Secretary, for preventing operators of motor vehicles under age 21 from obtaining alcoholic beverages and for preventing persons from making alcoholic beverages available to individuals under age 21. Such a strategy may include—
 
(A) the issuance of tamper-resistant drivers’ licenses to individuals under age 21 that are easily distinguishable in appearance from drivers’ licenses issued to individuals age 21 or older; and
 
(B) a program provided by a nonprofit organization for training point of sale personnel concerning, at a minimum—
 
(i) the clinical effects of alcohol;
 
(ii) methods of preventing second party sales of alcohol;
 
(iii) recognizing signs of intoxication;
 
(iv) methods to prevent underage drinking; and
 
(v) Federal, State, and local laws that are relevant to such personnel; and
 
(C) having a law in effect that creates a 0.02 percent blood alcohol content limit for drivers under 21 years old.
 
* * *
 
(f) Allocation.—Subject to subsection (g), funds made available to carry out this section shall be allocated among States that meet the eligibility criteria in subsection (b) on the basis of the apportionment formula under section 402(c).
 
* * *
 
* Repealed effective October 1, 2012. Pub.L. 112-141, Div. C, Title I, § 31109(e), July 6, 2012, 126 Stat. 757.
 

 

Source for all citations on this page: FDsys, the Federal Digital System of the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO).
Excerpts from the United States Code are current as of 2015. Excerpts from the Code of Federal Regulations are current as of 2016.  Excerpts from Public Laws of Congress are current as of the year of enactment.
The GPO’s Public Domain/Copyright Notice is available under the Policies heading at
http://www.gpo.gov/help/index.html .

 

Expander Selected References for Blood Alcohol Concentration Limits: Youth (Underage Operators of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles)

  1. Carpenter, C. How do zero tolerance drunk driving laws work? Journal of Health Economics 23(1):61-83, 2004.
     
  2. Cavazos-Rehg, P.A., Housten, A.J., Krauss, M.J., Sowles, S.J., Spitznagel, E.L., Chaloupka, F.J., Grucza, R., Johnston, L.D., O'Malley, P.M. and Bierut, L.J. (2016). Selected state policies and associations with alcohol use behaviors and risky driving behaviors among youth: Findings from Monitoring the Future Study. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 40(5):1030-6. doi: 10.1111/acer.13041. Epub 2016 Mar 28.
     
  3. Dejong, W. and Blanchette, J. Case closed: Research evidence on the positive public health impact of the age 21 minimum legal drinking age in the United States. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 75, Supplement 17:108-115, March 2014.
     
  4. Fell, J.C., Fisher, D.A., Voas, R.B., Blackman, K., and Tippetts, A.S. The impact of underage drinking laws on alcohol-related fatal crashes of young drivers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 33(7):1208-19, 2009.
     
  5. Fell, J.C., Fisher, D.A., Voas, R.B., Blackman, K., and Tippetts, A.S. The relationship of underage drinking laws to reductions in drinking drivers in fatal crashes in the United States. Accident Analysis and Prevention 40(4):1430-1440, 2008.
     
  6. Hadland, S.E., Xuan, Z., Blachette, J., Sarda, V., Swahn, M.H., Heeren, T.C., & Naimi, T.S. (2016). Alcohol policies and motor vehicle injury fatalities among underage youth in the United States. Journal of Adolescent Health, 58(2Suppl): S13-S14.
     
  7. Hingson, R. and White, A. New Research Findings Since the 2007 Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking: A Review. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs 75(1):158-69, January 2014.
     
  8. Johnson, M.B. (2016). A successful high-visibility enforcement intervention targeting underage drinking drivers. Addiction, 111(7):1196-1202. doi: 10.1111/add.13346. Epub 2016 Apr 13.
     
  9. Lovenheim, M.F., and Slemrod, J. The fatal toll of driving to drink: The effect of minimum legal drinking age evasion on traffic fatalities. Journal of Health Economics 29(1):62-77, 2010.
     
  10. Maldonado-Molina, M.M., Reingle, J.M., Delcher, C., and Branchini, J. The role of parental alcohol consumption on driving under the influence of alcohol: Results from a longitudinal, nationally representative sample. Accident Analysis and Prevention 43(6): 2182-2187, 2011.
     
  11. McCartt, A.T., Hellinga, L.A., and Kirley, B.B. The effects of minimum legal drinking age 21 laws on alcohol-related driving in the United States. Journal of Safety Research 41(2):173-81, 2010.
     
  12. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol and Transportation Safety. Alcohol Alert No. 52. Rockville, MD: NIAAA, 2001.
     
  13. Norberg, K.E., Bierut, L.J., and Richard, A.G. Long-term effects of minimum drinking age laws on past-year alcohol and drug use disorders. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research 33(12), 2009.
     
  14. O'Malley, P.M., & Johnston, L.D. (2013). Driving after drug or alcohol use by U.S. high school seniors, 2001–2011. American Journal of Public Health 103(11), 2027-2034. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301246.
     
  15. Peck, R.C., Gebers, M.A., Voas, R.B., and Romano, E. The relationship between blood alcohol concentration (BAC), age, and crash risk. Journal of Safety Research 39(3):311-9, 2008.
     
  16. Plunk AD, Cavazaos-Rehg P, Bierut LJ, and Grucza RA. The persistent effects of minimum legal drinking age laws on drinking patterns later in life. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37:463-469, January 24, 2013. (doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2012.01945.x).
     
  17. Romano, E., Scherer, M., Fell, J., & Taylor, E. (In press). A comprehensive examination of U.S. laws enacted to reduce alcohol-related crashes among underage drivers. Journal of Safety Research (available online 28 August 2015). DOI:10.1016/j.jsr.2015.08.001.
     
  18. Roudsari, B., and Ramisetty-Mikler, S. Exceptions to the ‘national minimum drinking age act’ and underage drunk driver death in the United States: A state-level comparison. Annals of Epidemiology 18(9):714-714, 2008.
     
  19. Scheetz, L.J. (2015). One for the road: A comparison of drinking and driving behavior among younger and older adults involved in fatal crashes. Journal of Trauma Nursing, 22(4): 187-93. doi: 10.1097/JTN.0000000000000141.
     
  20. Voas, R.B., Tippetts, A.S., and Fell, J. Assessing the effectiveness of minimum legal drinking age and zero tolerance laws in the United States. Accident Analysis and Prevention 35(4):579-87, 2003.
     
  21. Zakrajsek, J.S., and Shope, J.T. Longitudinal examination of underage drinking and subsequent drinking and risky driving. Journal of Safety Research 37(5):443-451, 2006.

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