What to Do After a Drunk Driving Accident in Washington, D.C.

DC DUI laws

DUI affects not only the drunk driver but also everyone else on the road

There are strict penalties for a DUI infraction in Washington, D.C. But even if you have never and would never drink and drive, you never know if you’re sharing the road with someone who would. Here’s what to do if you’re involved in an accident with a drunk driver (and how to avoid one).
Jump to section


Have you ever thought, “I’ll just have just 1 drink before I drive home”?

Lots of people do. And it’s a mistake. Even though you might feel like you’re “fine” to drive (and maybe you are), any person who drives while under the influence of alcohol is behaving negligently. Negligence, itself, has legal consequences if you’re in an accident — even if you didn’t cause it.

The District of Columbia sees about 2.3 alcohol-related fatalities per 100,000 people, according to recent data from the American Addiction Centers. However, D.C. had the lowest rate of DUI arrests compared to the states, with 3.2 arrests per 100,000 people.

But don’t be fooled — 3.2 per 100,000 people is still nearly 14,000 DUI arrests per year. Nearly ⅓ of all the traffic deaths in the District involved drunk drivers.

Facing factsIn 2018, the number of D.C. alcohol-related traffic fatalities decreased 1.6% from the previous year. However, the total number of alcohol-related crashes increased by 0.56%. (source)

There are some concerning trends appearing regionally in the past few years. According to the Washington Post, Arlington, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties saw their numbers of alcohol-related traffic fatalities double in 2017.

Real Life Example:In southern Prince George’s county, 3 children were killed when a drunk driver hit the car they were riding in. The drunk driver had a blood-alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit.

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits in Washington, D.C.

BAC is a measurement of how much alcohol is in a person’s bloodstream. It’s the primary metric used in determining whether a person is too drunk to drive.

The police can measure how much a person has had to drink by testing either their blood or breath. They also observe the person’s behaviors and might ask for certain physical tests (like walking in a straight line), but BAC through blood or breath is considered accurate enough to issue a DUI penalty.

Many police agencies use a Breathalyzer test for BAC, where the driver blows into a device that provides a reading of their BAC. The breath test is considered equivalent to a blood test and is more commonly used because it’s easier to take a breath test than a blood test at the scene of an accident or when a driver is pulled over on the road.

How can I determine my BAC?

Not easily. You cannot determine your own BAC without a Breathalyzer device or blood test.

There are several factors that affect a person’s BAC, and these factors can vary from day to day based on certain physical or emotional conditions.

There are 6 primary factors that affect your BAC:

  1. Amount of alcohol consumed
  2. Amount of food in your body prior to drinking alcohol
  3. How quickly the alcohol was consumed
  4. Your body weight
  5. Your biological gender
  6. Medications and medical conditions

Your BAC can also be affected by stress or other emotional factors, along with the type of alcohol (and type of food) consumed. Your body processes approximately 1 drink per hour, and you really can’t force yourself to “sober up” any faster. You need to wait until your body has metabolized the alcohol before you may drive safely.

Washington, D.C. DUI laws

The legal drinking age in the District is 21.

Types of intoxicated driving offenses

Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) Driving Under the Influence (DUI) Operating While Impaired (OWI)
A driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher can be convicted of a DWI solely based on a breath, blood, or urine test result. A driver with a BAC of .07 or lower can be convicted of a DUI. This offense can be charged if the officer observes signs of impairment from a field sobriety test, observations of the driver’s behavior, and a BAC reading. If the driver’s ability to operate a vehicle is affected in any way by drugs or alcohol, the officer can charge them with an OWI. The required proof of impairment is lower for an OWI than for a DUI.

District of Columbia penalties for drinking and driving

If you’re convicted of an alcohol-related offense, here’s what you might be looking at for penalties:

DUI/DWI Penalties
1st offense Up to 180 days of jail time $1,000 fine
2nd offense 10 days to 1 year of jail time $2,500 to $5,000 fine
3rd offense 15 days to 1 year of jail time $2,500 to $10,000 fine
OUI Penalties
1st offense Up to 90 days of jail time $500 fine
2nd offense 5 days to 1 year of jail time $1,000 to $2,500 fine
3rd offense 10 days to 1 year of jail time $1,000 to $5,000 fine

Any driver convicted of an OWI, DWI or DUI will have their license restricted. If they have a 3rd offense within 5 years, they will also have a 5-year license revocation. If an offense results in bodily injury, death, or a felony, their license will be permanently revoked. The driver’s vehicle is impounded for 24 hours following an alcohol offense.

They must also install an ignition interlock device (IID) for between 6 months and 2 years, depending on their offense.

In addition, there are aggravating factors that can increase penalties:

  • Minor passenger. A driver will receive a 5-day mandatory minimum sentence with a $500 fine for each minor who is properly restrained in the appropriate car seat, booster seat, or seat belt. If the child is not properly restrained, the mandatory minimum becomes 10 days and $1,000 per minor.
  • Prohibited drugs. A driver who has a Schedule I chemical or controlled substance (including PCP, cocaine, methadone, morphine, or their active metabolites) in their bloodstream or urine would receive a mandatory minimum sentence beginning with 15 days for a first offense and increasing with subsequent offenses.
  • Commercial vehicle driver. If the person is driving a commercial vehicle, there will be a 5-day mandatory minimum sentence. The BAC required for a commercial driver to be considered impaired is .04 or higher.
  • Drivers under 21. Anyone under the age of 21 who has a measurable amount of alcohol in their body loses their driver’s license, usually for 6 months to 1 year. An adult who provides a minor with alcohol (or assists in helping the minor obtain alcohol) can face a $300 fine and a license revocation up to 90 days.

Drunk driving criminal charges vs. civil liability

If you’re a victim of an alcohol-related traffic accident, it’s important to know how to pursue damages.

“Damages” is the legal term for money a plaintiff (injured person) can receive from a liable party (defendant) who caused an accident. The purpose of damages is for a plaintiff to be made whole by the legal system — or to be restored to the financial status you’d be in if the accident had never happened.

The driver who caused the accident can be charged with an alcohol-related traffic violation. Their charges and subsequent penalties might offer you a sense of justice or satisfaction, but they don’t impact your civil claim. Sometimes, criminal charges are excluded as evidence in a civil lawsuit.

The criminal proceedings are separate from your civil claims. You can’t recover damages just because there’s a criminal charge. You need to pursue damages from your insurance company, their insurance company, and the civil legal system if necessary.

Washington, D.C. no-fault car insurance laws

The District is a no-fault insurance jurisdiction, which generally means that your own insurance company pays for your minor injuries in an accident, regardless of who was at fault.

This can include expenses for medical treatment, lost wages, and other costs related to the accident.

You might also have Personal Injury Protection (PIP) insurance. It’s optional, but helpful in certain situations.

In Washington, D.C., PIP covers:

  • Medical and rehabilitation expenses up to $50,000 per person
  • The insurer must offer a $100,000 coverage option
  • It includes the person named in the policy, their vehicle occupants, and the occupants of any vehicle they are driving at the time of the accident

After an accident in the District, you have 60 days in which to elect to use your no-fault option or to file a personal injury claim against the at-fault driver. If you choose no-fault, you are not permitted to submit a claim against the driver later.

There are 2 exceptions, however, where you may later sue the at-fault driver:

  1. If your medical costs exceed the amount of PIP coverage, and
  2. If you suffered a significant impairment.

A “significant impairment” is a permanent impairment, scarring, or disability that lasts 6 months or longer. If you meet these criteria, you may file a claim on your own PIP policy and a claim against the at-fault driver’s policy.

If your injuries fall into 1 of these exceptions, you can file a personal injury lawsuit.

District contributory negligence fault system

In Washington, D.C., if a plaintiff has any degree of fault, they can’t recover damages for an accident.

Even if the defendant was drunk, if you were also partially liable, then you can’t recover damages in a lawsuit against the drunk driver. You’d be limited to whatever damages you can recover through your own insurance policy.

For instance, let’s say the drunk driver sped through an intersection and went through a red light without stopping. You had the green light when you were hit, but their attorney argues that at the time of the accident, you were checking a text on your phone. If they can prove that you would have been able to avoid the accident if you weren’t using your phone at the time, you won’t recover damages.

Who’s liable for a drunk driving accident?

The drunk driver isn’t the only person who could be liable for damages in an accident, even if they ultimately caused the collision.

Here are some other possibilities for negligent parties:

1. Private establishment / Dram Shop law

The District allows for a plaintiff injured in a drunk driving accident to sue a bar or restaurant that served the driver alcohol after knowing that they appeared intoxicated. The establishment could also be held liable if it served alcohol to a person under 21.

2. Negligent entrustment

You can sue a person who allowed another person to drive if they knew the driver was intoxicated.

3. Employer / respondeat superior

If an accident happened when the drunk driver was working, the victim may be able to file a lawsuit against the driver’s employer under the legal doctrine of respondeat superior.

How to spot a drunk driver

The best way to avoid becoming a victim of drunk driving is to know the signs of a drunk driver. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) offers these signs of drunk driving:

  • Quick acceleration or deceleration
  • Tailgating
  • Weaving or drifting in and out of lanes, swerving
  • Driving on the shoulder, median, or in another area that’s not intended for cars
  • Near misses — almost hitting an object or other vehicle
  • Erratic braking (stopping for no reason)
  • Signaling that’s inconsistent with actions (or no signaling)
  • Slow response to traffic signals or other things on the road
  • Driving at night without headlights
  • Driving too slowly for the speed limit
  • Abrupt or illegal turns or other maneuvers
  • Driving on the wrong side of the road

If you suspect that a driver is drunk, call 911. A police report is important after any accident, but especially if the driver is drunk. If the driver flees the scene, try to get as much information as possible. If you can quickly write down or photograph the car’s license plate, make and model, and color, that will be helpful to the police in identifying and locating the driver.

If the driver remains at the scene, let the police handle them. You don’t want to put your own safety at risk if the person is violent or behaving erratically.

Avoid drunk driving — for yourself and your friends or family

You should always be wary of your own alcohol consumption and that of your family or friends.

Be a responsible driver by following these 4 tips:

  1. Know before you go how you’re going to get home. Choose a designated driver before you head out so that the person is aware of their responsibility and knows they need to get everyone home safely. The designated driver should not drink any alcohol.
  2. Take the keys. If you see a friend who has been drinking and is about to drive, don’t let them get behind the wheel. Take their keys and help find them another way home. Don’t do this with a stranger, though — that can be dangerous. If someone leaves a party or establishment visibly drunk and is about to drive, call the police and give as much detail as you can about the car and in what direction it left. Don’t try to apprehend a stranger yourself.
  3. Call a ride. If you’ve been drinking at all, don’t drive. Instead, call a sober friend or use a taxi or rideshare service like Uber or Lyft.
  4. Watch your guests. If you’re the host, don’t let your guests leave unless they’re sober or have another ride home.

Find a D.C. personal injury lawyer after a drunk driving accident

There are a lot of factors that make a drunk driving accident particularly complex. For one thing, there could be criminal charges and a civil lawsuit happening simultaneously.

For another, factors like where and how the driver became drunk could be important and relevant, too.

Finally, drunk driving accidents often lead to more severe injuries than a “typical” fender-bender or minor accident. That means you could be entitled to receive more than what insurance offers as a settlement. The insurance company will cover your medical expenses and lost wages — within your policy limits. But for a serious accident, costs could be far more than what insurance provides.

In addition, insurance doesn’t cover damages like emotional distress or pain and suffering.

If you believe you’re entitled to more compensation than insurance provides, your best move is to call a Washington, D.C. personal injury lawyer.

Free personal injury guides for download to print or save. View all downloads.

Tell your story:
Tell your story - What would you want others to know? Tell us what happened in your accident, and how life has changed for you.

Find an attorney:
Search our directory for personal injury law firms.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.