North Carolina Drunk Driving Laws, Penalties & Victims’ Rights

North Carolina drunk driving

Understand the facts and your legal rights when it comes to North Carolina drunk driving accidents.

An accident with a drunk driver can change your life forever, whether you were injured or lost a loved one. Fortunately, help is available for victims of drunk driving accidents. Learn how the legal system can recover your costs.
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Here's a sobering statistic:

In a recent year, approximately 1 in 6 children involved in a drunk driving accident died from their injuries. On top of that, it was the child's own driver who was drunk in more than half of these fatalities.

The U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that 1 person dies about every 50 minutes in this country in a drunk driving crash — that's nearly 30 people every day. In 2018, there were 10,511 deaths from drunk driving crashes nationwide. In other words, nearly one-third (29%) of traffic fatalities in the U.S. were caused by drunk driving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 4,102 people were killed in crashes involving a drunk driver in North Carolina from 2003-2012, which is the most recent period for which data are available.

Facing factsThe rate of death in North Carolina is higher among women compared to men when it comes to drunk driving crashes. This is consistent with national data. The highest fatality rate is for the 21-34 age group.

What is drunk driving?

Drunk driving, also called impaired driving, is when a driver gets behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. The National Safety Council says that alcohol is the biggest drug problem in this country — and that there are more alcohol-related crashes than any related to cocaine, heroin, or every other illegal drug combined.

Drunk driving is so dangerous because alcohol is a sedative. Its effects can impair a driver's ability to make decisions, reduce coordination, and even restrict your ability to perform routine driving maneuvers.

When you drink and drive, you're endangering yourself, your passengers, other drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, and anyone else who shares the road.

The legal limit for alcohol consumption is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08%. However, there's no “formula” or method to know your BAC because it's affected by several factors. The only ways to accurately test BAC are using a breath test (commonly called a Breathalyzer, which is usually used by law enforcement), or a urine or blood test.

Your BAC can be affected by:

  • How much alcohol you drank
  • How quickly you drank
  • Your body weight
  • Altitude
  • Amount you've eaten, amount of time since you ate, and what you ate
  • Your biological gender
  • Type of alcohol
  • Other medications and medical conditions
  • Alcohol tolerance
  • Fatigue, stress, and mood
Enjuris tip: You can't determine your BAC based on a chart or calculator. You also can't judge your own BAC based on your friend's BAC, or even your own BAC on a different day or at a different time. Many of the factors that affect BAC are variable (food, level of stress, medications, etc.), so the only way to guarantee that you're within the legal BAC limit is not to drink any alcohol before you drive.

There are standard drink sizes in the U.S., and you might be able to somewhat predict your BAC based on the number of drinks consumed. The CDC says 14 grams of pure alcohol is the approximate amount a 160-pound man would need to drink in an hour in order to reach the BACs listed below.

A standard drink is:

  • 12 ounces of beer (5% alcohol)
  • 8 ounces of malt liquor (7% alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces (1 shot) of 80-proof distilled spirits or liquor (40% alcohol)

The chart below shows the number of drinks that might result in the noted BAC, the effects on your body, and how it could affect your driving.

BAC General effects Effects on driving
  • Loss of judgment
  • Relaxation
  • Slight body warmth
  • Altered mood
  • Reduced ability to visually track a moving target
  • Reduced ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously
  • Exaggerated behavior
  • Loss of small muscle control
  • Impaired judgment
  • Good feeling (happiness)
  • Less alert
  • Fewer inhibitions
  • Reduced coordination
  • Reduced ability to visually track a moving target
  • Difficulty steering
  • Reduced response to emergency situation
Legal limit
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Difficulty detecting danger
  • Loss of judgment and self-control
  • Impaired reasoning and memory
  • Loss of concentration and short-term memory
  • Loss of speed control
  • Reduced capability to process information
  • Impaired perception
  • Slowed reaction time and control
  • Slurred speech
  • Poor coordination
  • Slowed thinking
  • Reduced ability to stay in a lane and brake correctly
  • Severely reduced muscle control
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of balance
  • Substantially impaired to control vehicle
  • Cannot pay attention to driving
  • Lacking visual and auditory information processing

The best prevention for drunk driving is NOT to drink and drive. Period.

Plan before you go. Have a designated driver or an alternate ride home if you plan to drink. If you end up drinking but didn't plan on it, find another way to get home. Rideshare services, a sober friend or family member, or a taxi are always better options than driving drunk.

What to do if you've been hit by a drunk driver in North Carolina

Drunk driving is a criminal offense. However, you cannot charge someone with a crime. Only the government can do that.

What you can do, however, is file a claim for civil damages. If you're involved in an accident with a drunk driver, you become the plaintiff and the drunk driver is the defendant in a civil lawsuit. The only remedy in a civil lawsuit is for you to receive damages in the form of money. In other words, you can recover costs from the accident so you're restored to the financial condition you'd be in if the accident had never happened.

It's important to cooperate with law enforcement and prosecutors if you're asked for a statement, to be a witness, or for other evidence or information related to the criminal case. Not only does it help to provide evidence that could be important for a conviction or sentencing, but a drunk driving conviction might also be helpful to prove fault in your civil claim.

Enjuris tip: There are several steps to take after any car crash that's not your fault, and there are additional considerations if the other driver appears drunk.

For starters, never try to apprehend a drunk driver. If you're in an accident, call 911. You don't know if the person is dangerous, and someone might be more likely to cause harm when drunk than they would if sober. If the person attempts to flee, try to get as much information as possible about the vehicle (make, model, color, license plate) so the police can track them down.

There are a few things to watch for at the scene of an accident that might provide clues as to whether the other driver was drinking. Tell an officer if you observe the following:

  1. Smell of alcohol or marijuana on the other driver. The other driver might use a breath spray, gum, mints, or another substance to try to cover the smell before the police arrive.
  2. Use of eye drops. If the driver is under the influence of marijuana or other drugs that might not appear on a routine alcohol BAC test, they might use eye drops to make their appearance look more “normal” to police. If you see a driver administering eye drops, let the police know so that they can consider whether to give a drug test.
  3. Disposing of alcohol containers or drug paraphernalia. If you observe the driver tossing anything from the car, inform the police.
  4. Driver switching seats after the crash. Some drunk drivers will switch seats with a sober passenger so they can claim that the passenger was actually the driver. If you see this happen, inform the police at the scene.

Again, don't confront the driver with your suspicions. Wait until the police arrive and share the information with them. Law enforcement is trained to handle these situations, so let them do their job.

Filing a lawsuit against a drunk driver in North Carolina

North Carolina is an at-fault insurance state. If you're in a car crash in North Carolina, compensation for medical treatment and other costs should be covered by the insurance policy of the person who caused the accident.

An insurance settlement can only be up to the amount of the driver's policy limits.

North Carolina insurance law requires the following minimum coverages:

  • $30,000 for bodily injury (1 person)
  • $60,000 for bodily injury (2 or more people)
  • $25,000 property damage

In a serious accident, the minimum coverage might not cover the extent of your injuries. If that happens, your next option would be to file a personal injury lawsuit.

An insurance settlement should cover your medical expenses and property damage. It won't cover non-economic damages like emotional distress (for example, pain and suffering or loss of consortium) or punitive damages.

Punitive damages are in addition to the damages you recover in a personal injury lawsuit. These are intended to punish a defendant for behavior that's considered malicious or otherwise especially risky or reckless. Some courts will award punitive damages in a drunk driving case as a deterrent for other drivers in the community to discourage future drunk driving.

Enjuris tip: You might have heard of “double jeopardy,” which means a defendant can't be tried twice for the same crime. However, you can sue a defendant for damages for your injuries in a drunk driving case even if there are already criminal charges pending or if they were convicted of a drunk driving-related offense.

North Carolina dram shop law

The other way to file a personal injury lawsuit is a “cause of action” under North Carolina's dram shop or social host laws. Dram shop and social host laws allow a plaintiff to sue a bar, restaurant, or property owner that served alcohol to a drunk driver.

A person or business that serves alcohol can be responsible for a drunk driving accident if:

  • The intoxicated driver was under 21 years old,
  • The person who provided the alcohol was negligent,
  • The accident is caused because the person is drunk, and
  • The injuries from the accident are caused by the underage person's drunk condition.
In many states, dram shop laws apply to patrons of any age, but North Carolina laws are only with respect to underage drunk driving. Tweet this

Social host laws involve drinking at private parties or on private property. A host who over-serves alcohol to a driver who is already intoxicated or who is underage can be held responsible for a plaintiff's injuries in a crash.

Evidence in a drunk driving crash

If you're in a crash and suspect that the driver is drunk, it's imperative that evidence is gathered quickly. The drunk driver is going to become sober as time passes, and then it might be impossible to prove fault on that basis.

Here's what your lawyer will look for as evidence:

  • Police reports with BAC test results or visual evidence of drunkenness
  • Audio or video footage from the officer's body camera or dashcam
  • Witness statements
  • Surveillance video from nearby homes or businesses
  • Statements from the driver and passengers
  • Accident reconstruction reports from experts

Drunk driving penalties in North Carolina

North Carolina has 5 tiers of misdemeanor DWI, with Level I being the most serious and Level V being the least severe.

The state also allows law enforcement officers to order chemical tests for drugs. If a police officer suspects that a driver is impaired by a substance other than alcohol, they are permitted to perform drug testing. A driver's license can be revoked if they refuse to take a test.

Here are the different levels of North Carolina DWI convictions and penalties, starting with the least serious:

Level Fine Min. jail sentence Max. jail sentence Suspended sentence available
Level V Up to $200 24 hours 60 days Judge may suspend a sentence after the driver spends 24 hours in jail, performs 24 hours of community service, or doesn't operate a vehicle for 30 days.
Level IV Up to $500 48 hours 120 days Judge may suspend a sentence after the driver spends 48 hours in jail, performs 48 hours of community service, or doesn’t operate a vehicle for 60 days.
Level III Up to $1,000 72 hours 6 months Judge may suspend a sentence after the driver spends 72 hours in jail, performs 72 hours of community service, or doesn’t operate a vehicle for 90 days.
Level II Up to $2,000 7 days 1 year A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.
Level I Up to $4,000 30 days 2 years A judge cannot suspend the minimum sentence.
Aggravated Level I Up to $10,000 1 year 3 years

Source: North Carolina Department of Public Safety


In The News: Laura's Law added Aggravated Level I to the sentencing guidelines for North Carolina DWI in 2011. Laura Fortenberry was a 17-year-old girl from Gaston County who was killed in 2010 when she was a passenger in a car struck by a drunk driver who had multiple previous DWI convictions. Laura's Law is specifically intended for repeat DWI offenders.

An aggravated level I DWI is when 3 or more grossly aggravating factors are present. Grossly aggravating factors could include (but aren't limited to):

  • A DWI conviction in the past 7 years
  • Driving with a revoked license from an impaired driving offense

What are Level I and Level II DWI offenses?

Drivers who receive a Level I or Level II DWI charge are repeat offenders, people whose licenses are revoked, impaired drivers with young children as passengers, and impaired drivers who injure another person in a crash.

All impaired drivers must complete a substance abuse assessment and comply with recommended treatment in order to have their license restored after the revocation period.

Felony DWI

If a driver has 3 prior DWI convictions within 7 years, they fall under the Habitual DWI offender statute. This law mandates a minimum active jail term of 1 year and the sentence cannot be suspended.

North Carolina Governor's DWI Initiative

A repeat DWI offender will no longer have the means to drive. Law enforcement officers may seize a car if the driver is charged with DWI and the driver was driving with a revoked license because of a previous impaired driving offense. Law enforcement may seize the vehicle immediately, and not after trial or conviction.

If convicted, the judge offers the vehicle forfeited. That means the local school board may sell the vehicle and share the proceeds with any school system in the county, or it can keep the car for its own use. The only way the owner can get the car back is by convincing the court that they are not the person convicted of DWI or that they are otherwise innocent.

Zero tolerance laws

There is zero tolerance for DWI for commercial motor vehicle drivers and offenders under age 21.

For a commercial driver, the first offense results in disqualification from operating a motor vehicle for 10 days. Any subsequent offense results in revoked driver's license. The legal limit for a commercial driver is 0.04 BAC.

There is also zero tolerance for school bus, school activity, and child care vehicle drivers.

A person under 21 may not drive with any alcohol or illegally-used drugs in their system. If an underage driver refuses a BAC test, they can be convicted if law enforcement detects the smell of alcohol on their breath. An offender's driver's license is revoked for 1 year but they could be granted limited driving privileges if they're at least 18 years old and have no prior convictions.

North Carolina has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to #drunkdriving for underage and commercial drivers. Tweet this

Find a North Carolina drunk driving accident lawyer

Whether you're the victim in a North Carolina drunk driving-related crash, you lost a loved one to a drunk driver, or you've been charged with a DWI offense, you need a lawyer.

A lawyer can help you when it comes to receiving compensation for your losses or handling the legal system. The Enjuris law firm directory offers a listing of North Carolina personal injury law firms that are qualified and experienced to handle your compensation claim. 

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