Blood alcohol concentration laws

Evidence Rating  
Scientifically Supported
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) laws set legal limits for drivers’ blood alcohol concentration. In the United States, lower BAC limits are set for drivers under the legal drinking age. In other countries, lower levels often apply to newly licensed drivers or newly licensed drivers under a specified age1. High BAC levels have a detrimental effect on drivers’ physical and cognitive abilities, including muscle coordination, speed control, and perception2.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Reduced alcohol-related crashes

  • Reduced fatal and non-fatal injuries

What does the research say about effectiveness? This strategy is rated scientifically supported.

There is strong evidence that 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) laws reduce alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and fatalities compared to higher BAC levels1, 3, 4. Setting lower BAC limits for young or inexperienced drivers has also been shown to reduce crashes and fatalities1, 5, 6.

Lowering BAC limits from 0.10% to 0.08% appears to be associated with increases in arrests due to driving under the influence (DUI)7. Reducing BAC limits further (e.g., from 0.08% to 0.05%) can result in greater reductions in crashes and fatalities3, 8, 9.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated no impact on disparities likely.
Implementation Examples

As of January 2016, all 50 states and Washington, D.C. have blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits of 0.08% for drivers age 21 and over10. Utah’s amendment to the BAC bill, scheduled to take effect on December 30th, 2018, reduces the limit to 0.05% in the state11.

Zero tolerance laws make it illegal for individuals under the age of 21 to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in their systems; 14 states and Washington, D.C. have BAC limits of 0.00% for drivers under 21 and 34 states have limits of 0.02%10.

Implementation Resources

NHTSA-Drunk driving - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Drunk driving.

NTSB-DWI - National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Reaching zero: Actions to eliminate alcohol-impaired driving. Safety Report NTSB/SR-13/01. Washington, DC: NTSB; 2013.


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 CG-Motor vehicle injury - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Motor vehicle injury prevention.

2 NHTSA-Drunk driving - National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Drunk driving.

3 NICE-Killoran 2010 - Killoran A, Canning U, Doyle N, Sheppard L. Review of effectiveness of laws limiting blood alcohol concentration levels to reduce alcohol-related road injuries and deaths: Final report. London, UK: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE); 2010.

4 Bernat 2004 - Bernat DH, Dunsmuir WTM, Wagenaar AC. Effects of lowering the legal BAC to 0.08 on single-vehicle-nighttime fatal crashes in 19 jurisdictions. Accident Analysis & Prevention. 2004;36(6):1089-97.

5 Fell 2016 - Fell JC, Scherer M, Thomas S, Voas RB. Assessing the impact of twenty underage drinking laws. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2016;77(2):249-260.

6 Romano 2015 - Romano E, Scherer M, Fell J, Taylor E. A comprehensive examination of US laws enacted to reduce alcohol-related crashes among underage drivers. Journal of Safety Research. 2015;55:213-221.

7 Schwartz 2013 - Schwartz J, Davaran A. Enforcement following 0.08% BAC law change: Sex-specific consequences of changing arrest practices? Addictive Behaviors. 2013;38(10):2506-2512.

8 Fell 2014 - Fell JC, Voas RB. The effectiveness of a 0.05 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for driving in the United States. Addiction. 2014;109(6):869-874.

9 Martin 2013 - Martin TL, Solbeck PAM, Mayers DJ, et al. A review of alcohol-impaired driving: The role of blood alcohol concentration and complexity of the driving task. Journal of Forensic Sciences. 2013;58(5):1238-1250.

10 APIS - Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS). Welcome to the Alcohol Policy Information System.

11 UT BAC laws - State of Utah. H.B. 155 Driving under the influence and public safety: Revisions. 2017.

Date Last Updated