Driver impairment due to alcohol or drugs is the number one contributing factor in Washington fatal car crashes and is involved in nearly half of all traffic fatalities.
In 2020, there were 124 fatal crashes involving alcohol or drug impairment in Washington state, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation. In the same year, there were an additional 581 serious-injury crashes involving alcohol or drug impairment.
Accidents caused by alcohol or drugs are sometimes treated differently than other car accidents because there’s often a criminal charge component in addition to any civil litigation and insurance claims.
Let’s take a closer look.
Driving under the influence (DUI) refers to operating a motor vehicle while affected by alcohol or drugs (including marijuana and prescription medication).
There are 2 types of DUI charges in Washington: per se DUI and impairment DUI.
You can be charged with a DUI if the result of a breath or blood test shows any of the following:
You can be charged with a DUI if you are “affected” by alcohol or drugs while operating a motor vehicle, even if you consumed less than the legal limit.
How does a court decide if a driver is affected by alcohol or drugs?
The Washington Supreme Court looked at this exact question in Peralta v. State and explained that:
“A defendant may be said to be affected by [alcohol or drugs] if evidence beyond a reasonable doubt establishes that [alcohol or drugs] has so far affected his nervous system, brain, or muscles, so as to impair, to an appreciable degree, his ability to operate his car in the manner that an ordinary prudent and cautious man, in the full possession of his faculties, using reasonable care, would operate or drive a similar vehicle.”
Evidence that may be used to support a decision that a person is affected by alcohol or drugs may include:
|The effects of blood alcohol concentration (BAC)|
|BAC||Typical effects||Predictable effects on driving|
|.02||Some loss of judgment, relaxation, slight body warmth, altered mood||A decline in visual functions (rapid tracking of a moving target) and a decline in the ability to perform 2 tasks at the same time|
|.05||Exaggerated movement, some loss of small-muscle control (e.g., focusing your eyes), impaired judgment, lowered alertness, the release of inhibition||Reduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, reduced response to emergency driving situation|
|.08||Muscle coordination becomes poor (e.g., balance, speech, vision, reaction time, and hearing), harder to detect danger; judgment, self-control, reasoning, and memory are impaired||Concentration, short-term memory loss, speed control, reduced information processing capability (e.g., signal detection, visual search), impaired perception|
|.10||Clear deterioration of reaction time and control, slurred speech, poor coordination, and slowed thinking||Reduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately|
|.15||Far less muscle control than normal, vomiting may occur (unless this level is reached slowly or a person has developed a tolerance for alcohol), major loss of balance||Substantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task, and in necessary visual and auditory information processing|
Washington’s implied consent law requires anyone who operates a vehicle to submit to a sobriety test if stopped by a law enforcement officer who has reasonable grounds to believe the person has been driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
If the person refuses to submit to a test, their license will automatically be suspended for 1 year and evidence of their refusal can be used against them in a criminal trial.
The penalties for a DUI in Washington depend on the number of prior offenses (if any) and the amount of alcohol or drugs in the person’s system. The numbers below are mandatory minimums and maximums.
|Penalty||1st offense||2nd offense||3rd offense|
|Jail||Up to 364 days||30-364 days||90-364 days|
|License suspension||90 days||2 years||3 years|
Individuals who have a BAC of .15% or more can be charged with an aggravated DUI. Aggravated DUI convictions carry enhanced penalties (roughly double the jail time and fine). Similarly, individuals who are transporting a child under the age of 16 years old while under the influence may receive enhanced penalties.
If you’re convicted of a DUI, you’re required to get an alcohol/drug assessment from a Washington state-certified agency. If the report indicates that you have substance abuse or dependence concerns, you’ll need to take a treatment class.
It’s not always easy to distinguish a drunk driver from a distracted driver. Regardless, your reaction should be the same: STAY FAR AWAY.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has compiled some common signs of driving while under the influence to help you spot a drunk driver:
If you’re injured in a car accident caused by an intoxicated driver, you can file an insurance claim as you would in any other car accident. You may need to file a personal injury lawsuit against the intoxicated driver if:
Proving that an intoxicated driver caused your accident is usually as simple as obtaining a police report indicating that the driver was intoxicated. If liability is contested, you may need to hire a personal injury attorney to help develop and prove your case.
Dram shop laws hold establishments that sell alcohol (restaurants, bars, theaters, etc.) responsible for serving intoxicated patrons who later cause an accident.
Washington’s dram shop law can be found in the Revised Code of Washington 66.44.270 and upheld in the case Barrett v. Lucky Seven Saloon. The law states that an establishment will be liable for damages caused by an intoxicated patron if the following 3 conditions are met:
Once you have taken care of your immediate health concerns, call the police so they can investigate the accident and draft a police report. Be sure to let the responding office know if you suspect the other driver is intoxicated. Your statement (and any evidence you can provide) may help the officer establish the necessary reasonable grounds to administer a field sobriety test.
In addition to calling the police, look around for witnesses and collect their contact information. You should also take photographs of the scene, including anything that might support your claim that the other driver was intoxicated (beer bottles in or near the vehicle, for example).