How Much Does a Drunk Driving Accident Cost?

drunk driving cost

A DUI can wreak havoc on a victim and their family, but drinking and driving also comes with a high financial cost.

The worst-case scenario of a DUI is that someone is injured or killed. You can never bring that person back, and their family lives with that pain forever. The best-case scenario is that your first offense is a significant warning that deters you from ever driving drunk again. But this criminal offense involves thousands of dollars in court and other legal fees that you might not know about.

You probably already know that it’s in your best interest to avoid drunk driving. First and foremost, anyone who drives under the influence of drugs or alcohol runs the risk of being hurt or injuring someone else. Second, there can be criminal charges. Third, there can be a significant financial cost to a DUI, in addition to any fines assessed as the immediate penalty.

In this article, we’ll take a close look at the immediate and long-term financial costs of a DUI.

What is a DUI?

Drunk driving laws apply to vehicles other than cars and trucks. You can also be charged with an alcohol- or drug-related impairment offense if you’re operating one of the following:

  • Motorcycle
  • Aircraft
  • Boat (or other watercraft)
  • Construction or farm equipment
  • Bicycle
  • Horse or horse-drawn vehicle

The legal drinking age is 21 in every U.S. state. In some states (like Utah), a driver could be charged with a DUI even if they have less than the standard .08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC), and commercial drivers could be convicted with a .04% BAC. In most states, a driver under age 21 can be convicted with any amount of alcohol present in their bloodstream.

What’s BAC?

Your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) refers to the percent of ethyl alcohol or ethanol in your bloodstream. If your BAC is .10%, your blood supply contains one part alcohol for every 1,000 parts blood.

Each person’s body processes alcohol differently, and your own body handles alcohol differently based on the circumstances. So, even if you and a friend had exactly the same amount to drink, your BACs could be different. Along those same lines, your BAC could be higher today than it was yesterday, even though you drank the same amount.

The reason is because the factors that determine BAC are variable. They include:

  • Number of standard drinks consumed
    • 1 12-ounce regular beer (4.5% alcohol)
    • 1 7-ounce malt liquor (7% alcohol)
    • 1 5-ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol)
    • 1 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor (40% alcohol)
    • ⅓ jigger (0.5 ounce) of Everclear (95% alcohol)
  • Amount of time in which they’re consumed
  • Body weight
  • Biological sex
  • Any medications you’re taking, either prescription or over-the-counter, that affect how your body metabolizes alcohol
  • How much food you’ve eaten recently (i.e. drinking on an empty stomach will make you drunk faster than drinking on a full stomach)

Calculating the cost of a DUI

Let’s assume for a moment that you’ve gotten a DUI and were fortunate enough that no one was injured, and you’re not being sued for a personal injury.

Even if that’s the case, there are going to be a series of fines and penalties through both the criminal court system and the civil courts that you’ll need to pay.

Here’s a list of average amounts that DUI offenders pay following a conviction:

Estimated expense Purpose Description
$150 to $2,500 Bail or bond If you’ve been arrested for a DUI (or any offense), the court charges a sum of money in exchange for releasing you from jail. The amount required could be higher or lower depending on the severity of the offense.
$105 to $1,200 Towing If you’re arrested for DUI, your car will be towed because you’re unable to drive it home. You’ll need to pay a fee to recover it from an impound lot.
$2,500 Court fees & penalties For a first-time conviction, your court costs could be around $2,000 or more. In fact, the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs estimates that there could be additional penalties of nearly 3 times that amount. These fees could include costs for spending time in jail, sentencing, and probation.
$1,500 to $5,000 Attorney fees Offenders who used public defenders for a DUI defense and those who hired private attorneys pay, on average, nearly $2,000 for attorney fees in a DUI court action. These fees are significantly higher for a subsequent offense.
$20 to $260 License fees and reinstatement The DMV in your county will charge a fee in order to reinstate a license that has been revoked or suspended. In addition, you might need to pay for transportation during the time while you’re prohibited from driving. Depending on whether or not you have friends or family who can provide rides, if you can use public transportation, or if you need to use a rideshare service, these expenses could add up quickly.
$50 to $100
per month
Ignition interlock device (IID) Some states require that even first-time offenders install an IID, which is a breathalyzer device that prevents the car from starting if the driver is intoxicated.
$1,000 to $3,000 Substance abuse treatment or classes Almost every DUI offender is required to participate in some kind of treatment as part of their probation. The cost could vary substantially depending on the severity of the offense and the type of classes or treatment selected.
$500 Restitution Some states require that a DUI offender pay a fee into a state fund to assist crime victims.
$25 to $400
per week
Urine and drug testing Some courts will order a DUI offender to submit to urine or blood testing for alcohol and drugs on a weekly basis, or even several times a week. Many of these screens cost $25 to $80 per test, which could add up to an average of $600 per month.
$100 to $1,000 Driver responsibility assessment fees In some states, you must pay a driver responsibility assessment fee. This is designed to prevent repeated DUI or other alcohol or drug-related offenses. Some states base the cost by the number of points on your license, and others have a flat fee.
$1,000 Insurance increases Your insurance could increase if you’re in any accident where you’re at fault and even careful drivers have accidents. But a driver charged with DUI is considered a high-risk driver. Your insurance premium will increase dramatically after a DUI offense.
Total estimated expenses = $12,205

Again, it’s important to understand that this is an estimate. Actual costs could be far higher (or a bit lower), but it’s definitely going to add up once you calculate expenses outside the initial costs.

Enjuris tip: The costs above are actual costs, but there are others that aren’t included. For example, if you have to serve jail time or make court appearances, you could lose time from work and income. Or, you might even lose your job altogether (and a DUI could make it hard to find a new one).

Aside from your own transportation, do you have transportation for your children if you lose your license? You might be able to take public transportation back and forth to work, but it might not be that easy to get them to childcare or other places they need to go.

If you spend time in jail, who takes care of your children? Even if you have a reliable and available family member, they might not be able to pay for your children’s financial support and you might need to find a way to cover their expenses.

Which states have the highest penalties for DUI?

Experts have examined a number of factors to determine which states have the highest penalties for DUI.

Ranking factors include:

  • Amount of minimum jail time for 1st conviction
  • Amount of minimum jail time for 2nd conviction
  • When DUI is considered a felony (after how many offenses)
  • How long a previous DUI stays on your record for assessing new penalties
  • Additional penalties for high blood-alcohol content (BAC)
  • Minimum fine for 1st conviction
  • Minimum fine for 2nd conviction
  • Protection against child endangerment
  • When IID is mandatory (after how many offenses) and for how long
  • Whether there’s license suspension after arrest but before conviction
  • Whether alcohol treatment is mandatory
  • Vehicle impound after arrest
  • Average insurance rate increase after DUI
  • No-refusal initiatives for search warrants for sobriety testing
  • Sobriety checkpoints
  • Other penalties

Here’s how the states ranked for DUI penalties (from strictest to most lenient):

Rank State Rank State
1 Arizona 27 Minnesota
2 Georgia 28 South Carolina
3 Alaska 29 New Mexico
4 Kansas 30 New York
5 Oklahoma 31 New Hampshire
6 Nebraska 32 Alabama
7 Connecticut 33 Rhode Island
8 Utah 34 Missouri
9 Delaware 35 Maine
10 West Virginia 36 North Carolina
11 Colorado 37 Indiana
12 Virginia 38 Wisconsin
13 Texas 39 Wyoming
14 Louisiana 40 Montana
15 Washington 41 Mississippi
16 Oregon 42 Vermont
17 Florida 43 Michigan
18 Nevada 44 Pennsylvania
19 Illinois 45 New Jersey
20 Tennessee 46 Maryland
21 California 47 Idaho
22 Arkansas 48 North Dakota
23 Massachusetts 49 Ohio
24 Iowa 50 District of Columbia
25 Kentucky 51 South Dakota
26 Hawaii

Types of DUI classifications

If you’re 21 or older and get caught driving with a BAC of 0.08 or higher, you can be arrested for an “under the influence” offense. But there’s more than just DUI.

More than half of U.S. states use the acronym “DUI” to refer to any drunk driving offense. Here are some other common acronyms and what they stand for:

  • DUI: Driving under the influence
  • DUIL: Driving under the influence of liquor
  • DWI: Driving while intoxicated (Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Texas)
  • DWAI: Driving while ability impaired, which is when the driver’s BAC is between 0.05% and 0.07% (Colorado, New York)
  • OUI: Operating under the influence (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts)
  • OWI: Operating while intoxicated (Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Wisconsin)
  • OUIL: Operating under the influence of liquor
  • OVI: Operating a vehicle under the influence (Ohio)
  • DUII: Driving under the influence of intoxicants (Oregon)
  • OVUII: Operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant (Hawaii)

Special classifications

Some states include separate charges for violations like repeat offenses, very high BAC, DUI with children in the vehicle, and other situations.

These include:

  • DUI: Specific to people under age 21, while DWI is for those who are more than 21 years old (Arkansas)
  • DWI: This is the exact opposite of the Arkansas law, so a DWI is for drivers under age 21, but DUI is for drivers over age 21 (Maryland)
  • OWVI: Operating while visibly impaired. In other words, the officer can charge the driver even without a chemical test result because the driver appears intoxicated. (Michigan)
  • OWPD: This refers to a “per se impairment,” which is operating while under the influence of a Schedule I drug or cocaine (Schedule I is a drug that has a high potential for abuse and has no accepted medical use, including LSD, Peyote, Ecstasy, mushrooms, heroin, and non-medicinal marijuana), even if it’s a small amount. (Michigan)
  • DUID: Driving under the influence of drugs, or in an “intoxicated or drugged condition” (Missouri)
  • DUAC: Driving with unlawful alcohol concentration can be a moving violation but not a criminal offense if the driver doesn’t have visible signs of impairment (South Carolina)
Enjuris tip: A DUI becomes a felony if there’s an aggravating factor, like driving with a revoked license, with children in the vehicle, or if someone is killed as a result of drunk driving (intoxication manslaughter).

Personal injury lawsuits from drunk driving accidents

The legal fees associated with your DUI conviction are just the beginning of your financial costs if anyone injured in the accident files a personal injury lawsuit against you.

If you have a standard automobile insurance policy, it covers you for a car accident if you’re at fault and even if you were negligent. However, no car insurance policy will cover an accident caused by intentional conduct.

Depending on the provisions of your policy, the insurer might argue that drinking and driving is intentional conduct — after all, you chose to drink and chose to drive, both of which are intentional. The driver knew or should’ve known that drinking and driving is dangerous and involves a high risk of injury to another person.

The insurer might cover your own vehicle damage, but it’s unlikely to cover bodily injury to you or someone else.

If another person files a personal injury lawsuit, their lawyer might add a claim for intentional misconduct, and your insurance company won’t pay for that as part of your defense. That means you’ll need to pay that damage award out of your own pocket. The financial cost to this would be similar to what you’d pay an injured plaintiff if you were driving without insurance.

Car insurance policies include a provision that the insurance company will defend you in a personal injury lawsuit. The insurance company might hire a defense attorney for you in a DUI-related claim, but it’s probably in your best interest to consult your own personal injury lawyer. Your liability insurance policy might cover compensatory damages (those damages that are awarded to repay a plaintiff for medical treatment and other costs, in addition to pain and suffering), but it won’t cover punitive damages.

Punitive damages are sometimes awarded to a plaintiff as a way for the court to punish a defendant, or as a deterrent when the behavior is especially egregious or dangerous. These damages are in addition to the compensatory damage award and you’d be required to pay them out of pocket.

How are DUI damages calculated?

There’s no way to estimate the “average” cost of a DUI settlement. Every case is different and the amount of damages or settlement depends on the facts of the case.

However, most settlements or awards are based on these factors (and others):

  • Severity and permanence of the injury
  • Degree of comparative fault (i.e. whether the other driver had any shared liability)
  • The amount of economic loss

What should you do if you’ve been charged with a DUI or a related offense?

Most lawyers are either criminal lawyers or civil litigators. You might need one of each for a DUI offense.

Enjuris tip: Understand the difference between criminal vs. civil law.

If you’re facing criminal charges, a criminal defense lawyer might be able to negotiate a plea deal or get you a reduced sentence. If you can’t afford a criminal defense lawyer, the court will appoint a public defender for you. Bear in mind, though, that most of the costs listed above as related to the criminal charge are fixed. If your state requires an IID for 6 months at a cost of $100 per month, your lawyer won’t be able to reduce that cost. Perhaps the lawyer could reduce the number of months, but many states have mandatory minimum sentences for DUI, and that could include those additional costs.

If you’re served with a personal injury lawsuit, you might wish to consult a personal injury lawyer. If you already have a criminal lawyer, they might be able to recommend one.

Your insurance company might be willing to settle with the plaintiff up to your policy limit. But if the claim is higher than your policy limit, or if there are punitive damages involved, the insurance company’s lawyer won’t be your best advocate.

Remember this:

The insurance company is obligated to defend you under certain conditions and within your policy limits. But its priority is to settle the claim at the lowest possible cost to itself — the insurance company. Your lawyer’s job is to advocate for you and to minimize the plaintiff’s damage award to cost you the least money.

The bottom line is that a DUI can cost a large amount of money, even under the simplest circumstances. There are a lot of factors, and what state you’re in matters significantly.

Enjuris offers a free lawyer directory that can assist you in finding the best personal injury lawyer for your drunk driving accident case.

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Stanford University, Office of Alcohol Policy and Education
Bankrate, DUI 101: Here’s how much a DUI can cost you, The Financial Cost of a DUI
WalletHub, Strictest and Most Lenient States for DUI

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