Drivers Under the Age of 21 Face Serious DUI Penalties

Twenty-nine percent of drivers under the age of 21 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes had been drinking. No amount of drinking and driving is safe for young drivers. The laws against underage DUI reflect this. Here are some of the worst consequences of an underage DUI.

The Legal Consequences of an Underage DUI

In many states, an underage DUI is a criminal charge, and the driver will be tried in criminal court. If convicted, these are the consequences:

  • Possibility of jail time. The higher the driver’s BAC, the more likely they'll get a jail sentence, which can be for up to six months.

  • Suspended license. An underage DUI conviction will almost always result in the driver’s license being suspended.

  • Criminal record. In states where underage drivers are prosecuted in criminal court, the guilty drivers end up with criminal records that will have wide-ranging negative effects on their lives. In some states, the drivers will eventually be able to expunge their records. But in others, the criminal convictions will stay on their records permanently.

  • Fines. Fines for underage DUIs range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

  • Community service requirements. States that don’t send underage DUIs to jail may require substantial community service hours instead.

  • Required classes and rehab. Some states require underage DUIs to take classes and/or participate in alcohol rehabilitation programs.

The exact penalties will depend on which state you are in. Here are a couple of examples:

  • In Pennsylvania, drivers under 21 with a BAC of 0.02% or more face penalties including jail sentences ranging from two days to six months, license suspensions from a year to 18 months, and fines from $500 to $5,000.

  • In Illinois, any driver under 21 who has any trace of alcohol in their system while driving will lose driving privileges. If convicted of a DUI, their license will be suspended for at least two years for a first conviction.

What's Considered an Underage DUI?

In most states, adults can only be charged with DUIs if their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or higher. But for drivers under the age of 21, the limit is much lower.

Many states have zero-tolerance laws for underage drinking and driving. Teens can be charged with a DUI if their BAC is only 0.01% or 0.02%. That’s very low. You can reach that level after having only one drink, or even less than a whole drink. In some states, underage drivers can be charged with a crime if they get behind the wheel after consuming any amount of alcohol at all — even if it’s such a small amount that it registers as 0.0% on the BAC test.

The Psychological Effects of Causing an Accident While Under the Influence

If a teenager gets caught driving with alcohol in their system, the legal penalties are severe, even if there wasn’t a crash. But if the teen caused an accident, the psychological effects can be even worse than the legal penalties.

If someone got hurt in the crash or killed the driver’s feelings of guilt may be overwhelming and can last for the rest of their life. You may be afraid to get behind the wheel, develop depression, or even require medical treatment to overcome the trauma.

What Parents and Caregivers Can Do to Help Prevent Their Young Drivers From Drinking and Driving

You can play an important role in preventing your child from facing an underage DUI charge.

  • Talk to your teen early and often about the dangers of drinking and driving and the consequences of being charged with an underage DUI. 

  • Set a good example by not getting behind the wheel after you’ve been drinking.

  • Enroll your teen in a driver's ed course that will help them establish responsible driving habits. The online teen driving school teaches teens how to drive safely and responsibly.

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Updated 1/10/23