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What is Drunk Driving?

Definition of Drunk Driving

In every state of the United States as well as Puerto Rico, a driver may be arrested for drunk driving based on two different scenarios:

DWI, DUI or OWI

A law enforcement officer may arrest a driver for Driving While Intoxicated (DWI), Under the Influence (DUI) or Operating [a motor vehicle] While Intoxicated (OWI). Which term is used depends on the individual state, but each of the three terms means basically the same thing. An officer makes the determination that a driver is drunk based on observations of the driver:

Behind the Wheel:

  • Does the driver obey all posted traffic laws?
  • Does the driver stay in his own lane or weave erratically between lanes?
  • Does the driver operate his/her vehicle at the posted speed, or is s/he driving too fast or too slowly?

Beside the Road:

  • Can the driver recite the alphabet? Can s/he count forwards and then backwards?
  • Can the driver pass the Standardized Field Sobriety Test? The officer will observe the driver's ability to:
    • Balance while standing on one leg without leaning to side-to-side, falling over or excessively using his/her arms for balance.
    • Horizontally track an object (usually the officer's index finger or pen) when placed twelve inches in front of his/her face. This is often referred to as the Nystagmus test. If the driver's eyes shake or cannot remain focused on the object, this may be a sign of alcohol consumption.
    • Walk heel-to-toe for nine steps along a straight line, turn in place, and then walk heel-to-toe for another nine steps. The officer will observe if the driver counts out exactly nine steps each direction, turns in place, and stays on the line.
  • Can the driver touch his/her fingertips to his/her nose with outstretched arms while his/her eyes are closed and head is tilted backward? Intoxicated drivers often sway or stagger or are unable to find their own nose.
  • Can the driver stand still, with eyes closed, and estimate when thirty seconds has passed? Intoxicated drivers often count too quickly or too slowly.

"Illegal Per Se"
This legal term simply indicates that the driver's Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is at or above 0.08 percent. BAC can be measured roadside with a portable Breathalyzer unit or at the police or sheriff's office with a blood test or urine test.

It is important to note that while a driver may be charged, arrested and even convicted for two separate offenses, DUI/DWI/OWI and "Illegal Per Se," s/he may only be punished for one of the two offenses, not both.


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