You should know not to drive drunk, but do you know what to do if you’re injured by a drunk driver?
Most of us are well aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. If you’ve been around since the 1980s, 1990s, or later, you likely saw or heard a variety of campaigns aimed to discourage driving under the influence, or DUI. It’s for good reason—in the first nine months of 2022, Vermont had 61 traffic fatalities, 22 of which involved drivers under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 2021, there were 40 DUI-related fatalities in Vermont.
A sergeant from the Vermont State Police was quoted in 2022 saying that the state can’t “arrest our way out of this”; rather, drivers need to understand when they or someone else is too impaired to drive and take personal responsibility for their condition while driving.
Every driver needs to take responsibility for the safety of everyone who shares the road—other drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. But if the moral and ethical reasons are not enough, it’s important to consider the legal implications of driving under the influence. You should also know your rights as a victim if you’re injured in an accident where another driver was drunk or otherwise impaired.
What is impairment?
Alcohol isn’t the only substance that makes driving dangerous. Prescription medications, illegal drugs, cannabis, and over-the-counter drugs like antihistamines or decongestants could affect your driving, too. Some of these substances affect your concentration, reflexes, motor skills, and judgment. You should always read the fine print on a medication label and look for a warning before you drive. Likewise, even if there isn’t a warning, if the medication makes you feel differently than before you took it, you should not drive until it has worn off.
However, we focus most on alcohol consumption because we know that no one can drive safely with more than a very small amount of alcohol in their bloodstream. Even if you think you can drive safely after a few drinks, you probably can’t—and if you do, it’s illegal, regardless of how you feel.
How alcohol affects your driving
Alcohol affects both the central nervous system and the brain. Here’s how:
- Alcohol is absorbed through the walls of the stomach and small intestine. It passes into the bloodstream and is metabolized by the liver.
- BAC (blood alcohol concentration) is measured by the weight of alcohol in a certain volume of blood.
Even very small amounts of alcohol can affect how you drive. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration describes these effects on driving at BAC amounts below and above the legal limit:
|BAC||General effects||Effects on driving|
.08 is the Vermont legal limit for BAC.
What’s your BAC?
The only way to know your BAC is to use a blood test or Breathalyzer. But there are several factors that affect your BAC, and each factor is individual to your body and its condition at a particular time. You can’t assume that because you and a friend had the same amount to drink that you have the same BAC — your bodies will metabolize alcohol differently.
By the same token, you should never assume that if you drink the same amount today as you did yesterday you’ll have the same BAC. There are many factors that can change how your body is affected by alcohol from one day to another.
There are 6 factors that affect your BAC:
- Amount of alcohol consumed
- Amount of food in your body prior to drinking alcohol
- How quickly the alcohol was consumed
- Your body weight
- Your biological gender
- Medications and medical conditions
You can’t “sober up” more quickly than your body allows. Your body processes approximately 1 drink per hour, and you really can’t hasten the process — you just have to wait until your body metabolizes the alcohol and you become sober.
Some people will drink coffee in order to try to sober up faster in order to drive. This does not work and could actually be more dangerous. The CDC says, “When alcohol is mixed with caffeine, the caffeine can mask the depressant effects of alcohol, making drinkers feel more alert than they would otherwise. As a result, they may drink more alcohol and become more impaired than they realize, increasing the risk of alcohol-attributable harms.” Caffeine does not make your body metabolize alcohol faster or reduce impairment from alcohol.
In addition, consuming energy drinks along with alcohol or mixed with alcohol can mask the signs of impairment and increase your risk of injury.
Vermont drunk driving penalties
First offense: Up to two years in prison and a fine up to $750, 90-day driver’s license suspension.
Second offense: Up to two years in prison and a fine up to $1,500, 18 months of driver’s license suspension.
Third offense: Up to five years in prison and fine up to $2,500, driver’s license revoked for life.
If drunk driving results in a fatality, the driver could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000. If a victim is seriously injured, the offender could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison with a $5,000 fine.
If someone is killed in a drunk driving accident and it’s the driver’s third (or subsequent) offense, the mandatory minimum prison sentence is five years, absent extenuating circumstances.
Commercial drivers: A commercial vehicle driver’s legal limit in Vermont is a .04 BAC. If they commit a first DUI, they are prohibited from driving a commercial vehicle for one year. If the driver was transporting hazardous materials at the time of the DUI, they could lose their commercial license permanently or for not less than 10 years.
Drivers under 21: A driver who is under 21 and is convicted of DUI must participate in an alcohol abuse program and will receive a six-month license suspension for a first offense. If there is a second offense, their license is suspended for one year or until they reach age 21, whichever is longer, along with a mandatory alcohol abuse program.
A dram shop act holds a commercial establishment (like a restaurant or bar) liable for serving drinks to a person who then commits a DUI.
The Vermont Dram Shop Act allows a spouse, child, guardian, employer or anyone injured by an intoxicated person the right to sue a licensed drinking establishment that sold liquor under to someone who caused an injury under these conditions:
- The intoxicated person was a minor
- The intoxicated person was already observably under the influence of alcohol
- It was outside of legal serving hours
- The person would be reasonably anticipated to be intoxicated because of the amount of alcohol served to them, even if they didn’t appear drunk
The Vermont Social Host Statute applies to a person who does not have a liquor license, such as a party in a private home. A social host who provides alcohol to a person under 21 who causes an accident could be liable for injuries caused by the driver’s intoxication.
It is a crime to serve alcohol to a person under the legal drinking age of 21. The provider of alcohol could be sentenced to up to two years in prison and a fine of $500 to $2,000. If the intoxicated person causes death or serious injury, the provider could be sentenced to up to five years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.
If you’re the victim in a drunk driving accident, you could be entitled to recover damages from the negligent driver. Remember that their criminal penalties (jail time and fines) are separate from civil lawsuits. You can file a lawsuit in Vermont within three years of the date of the accident. However, if your lawsuit is for the wrongful death of someone who was killed in an accident, you have two years from the date of the accident in which to file with the court.