Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits for Minors

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits for Minors Peggy Kelley Fri, 10/26/2018 - 10:46 AM EDT


Blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits for minors laws ban youth under the age of 21 from driving with a blood alcohol content above measurable levels (usually 0.01–0.02 compared to 0.08 for adults).


To deter youth from drinking and driving while impaired

Typical Elements

  • Associated penalties for minors who violate this law, such as:
    • License revocation
    • Citations with fines
    • Restricted driving privileges (i.e., earlier curfew on driving times)
    • Tip: State-level information on key components of underage drinking laws can be found at the Alcohol Policy Information System website.
    • Note: The deterrent effect of BAC laws increases with administrative license revocation provisions because they increase certainty and speed of punishment (Voas, Lange, & Tippetts, 1998).
  • Collaboration with the police and other local leaders who promote enforcement of the BAC law in the community (Stewart, 2010). Police activities can include:
    • Educating officers about the behaviors associated with drinking under the influence (DUI) among youth (which can differ from adults). For example, impaired youth tend to avoid main highways, cluster around social events rather than bars and restaurants, drive between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on weekends, and speed and drive aggressively rather than weave.
    • Selecting, providing training for, and implementing enforcement strategies such as sobriety checkpoints and party patrols. Consider using passive breath sensors or preliminary breath testing devices because they detect low BAC.
    • Ensuring ongoing support and accountability for officers to actively pursue impaired drivers. Topics related to DUI and its enforcement can be included during roll call and refresher trainings, and DUI enforcement should be a significant part of performance measurement.
    • Establishing juvenile holdover facilities where officers can detain youth who violate BAC laws when no legal guardian can be found. Without such facilities, officers can be reluctant to enforce the laws.
  • Awareness of and support for BAC laws and their enforcement. To increase awareness and support, advocates may want to consider:
    • Contacting state prosecutors to advocate for underage drinking and driving prevention
    • Utilizing the media to disseminate prevention messages. For example, submitting articles and press releases to local newspapers as well as drafting letters to the editor about the problems associated with underage drinking and driving and local BAC law enforcement efforts (see Media Advocacy).
    • Collaborating with local high schools (e.g., administrators, event organizers) to launch a communications campaign to promote safety during spring break, prom, and graduation.


Youth under age 21


  • Regarding underage drinking behaviors, implementation of lower BAC limits for minors has been associated with reductions in:
    • Youth alcohol use (Carpenter, Kloska, O’Malley, & Johnston 2007)
    • Driving after drinking any alcohol for teenagers (Hingson, Heeren, & Winter, 1994; Wagenaar, O’Malley, & LaFond, 2001)
    • Driving after drinking five or more drinks for teenagers (Hingson et al., 1994; Wagenaar et al., 2001)
    • Heavy episodic drinking (five or more drinks at one sitting) among underage males (Carpenter, 2004b)
    • Drinking and driving among college students (Liang & Huang, 2008)
  • Regarding potential consequences of underage drinking behaviors, implementation of lower BAC limits for minors has been associated with reductions in:
    • Fatal motor vehicle crashes that involve underage drinking and driving (Voas, Tippetts, & Fell, 2003; Fell, Fisher, Voas, Blackman, & Tippetts, 2009)
    • Nighttime fatal motor vehicle crashes involving underage drivers (Hingson et al., 1994)
    • Alcohol-related fatal motor vehicle crashes (Chang, Wu, & Ying, 2012)
    • Suicide deaths among males ages 15–17 and 18–20 (Carpenter, 2004a) as well as among males ages 20–24 (Markowitz, Chatterji, & Kaestner, 2003)
    • Gonorrhea rates among white males ages 15–19 (Carpenter, 2005)
  • Implementation of lower BAC limits for minors has been associated with increased sanctions for drinking and driving among underage youth (McCartt, Blackman, & Voas, 2007).
  • When combined with vigorous, highly publicized enforcement campaigns, BAC laws have been associated with reductions in alcohol-related crashes among young people (Blomberg, 1993).


State Profiles of Underage Drinking Laws

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Limits: Youth (Underage Operators Of Noncommercial Motor Vehicles) 

A Guide to Zero Tolerance and Graduated Licensing: Two Strategies That Work

A Guide for Enforcing Impaired Driving Laws for Youth

Zero Tolerance Means Zero Chances


Athena Forum: Excellence in Prevention

Reducing Alcohol-Impaired Driving: Lower BAC Laws for Young or Inexperienced Drivers


Blomberg, R.D. (1993). Lower BAC limits for youth: Evaluation of the Maryland .02 law. In Alcohol and other drugs: ­Their role in transportation (Transportation Research Circular No 413, pp. 25–27). Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board.

Carpenter, C. (2004a). Heavy alcohol use and youth suicide: Evidence from tougher drunk driving laws. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 23(4), 831–842.

Carpenter, C. (2004b). How do zero tolerance drunk driving laws work? Journal of Health Economics, 23(1), 61–83.

Carpenter, C. (2005). Youth alcohol use and risky sexual behavior: Evidence from underage drunk driving laws. Journal of Health Economics, 24(3), 613–628.

Carpenter, C., Kloska, D., O’Malley, P., & Johnston, L. (2007). Alcohol control policies and youth alcohol consumption: Evidence from 28 years of Monitoring the Future. The Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 7(1), Article 25.

Chang, K., Wu, C-C., & Ying, Y-H. (2012). The effectiveness of alcohol control policies on alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 45, 406–415.

Fell, J. C., Fisher, D. A., Voas, R. B., Blackman, K., & Tippetts, A. S. (2009). The impact of underage drinking laws on alcohol-related fatal crashes of young drivers. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 33(7), 1208–1219.

Hingson, R. W., Heeren, T., & Winter, M. (1994). Effects of lower legal blood alcohol limits for young and adult drivers. Alcohol, Drugs and Driving, 10(3–4), 243–252.   

Liang, L., & Huang, J. (2008). Go out or stay in? The effects of zero tolerance laws on alcohol use and drinking and driving patterns among college students. Health Economics, 17(11), 1261–1275.

Markowitz, S., Chatterji, P., & Kaestner, R. (2003). Estimating the impact of alcohol policies on youth suicides. The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 6(1), 37–46.

McCartt, A. T., Blackman, K., & Voas, R. B. (2007). Implementation of Washington State’s zero tolerance law: Patterns of arrests, dispositions, and recidivism. Traffic Injury Prevention, 8(4), 339-345.

Stewart, K. (2010). A guide for enforcing impaired driving laws for youth. Calverton, MD: Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. Retrieved from

Voas, R., Lange, J., & Tippetts, A. S. (1998, October). Enforcement of the zero tolerance law in California: A missed opportunity? Proceedings of the 42nd annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, pp. 369–383. Charlottesville, VA.

Voas, R. B., Tippetts, A. S., & Fell, J. C. (2003). Assessing the effectiveness of minimum legal drinking age and zero-tolerance laws in the United States. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 35(4), 579–587.

Wagenaar, A. C., O'Malley, P. M., & LaFond, C. (2001). Lowered legal blood alcohol limits for young drivers: Effects on drinking, driving, and driving-after-drinking behaviors in 30 states. American Journal of Public Health, 91(5), 801–804.