(BPT) - Many Americans associate drinking and driving with New Year's Eve. But throughout the cold-weather months, from holiday season office parties through snowmobiling season in January and February, to St. Patrick's Day in March, there are ample opportunities for even cautious drivers to let their guard down when it comes drinking and driving.
That's why law enforcement officials step up their efforts to deter drinking and driving during peak periods of alcohol use.
Across the United States, the law is clear. It's a crime for a driver to operate a motor vehicle, including snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, while impaired by alcohol or drugs, including prescribed and over-the-counter medications, according to FindLaw.com, the nation's leading source of free online legal information. Driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) can carry significant consequences that can affect all aspects of your life, from jail time to revoked driving privileges to dramatically higher insurance rates.
The use of alcohol and other drugs also extends beyond the roads to the slopes. In Colorado, for example, under the Ski Safety Act of 1979, it is 'unlawful to ride a lift or to use any ski slope or trail when your ability to do so is impaired by the consumption of alcohol or any drug.'
According to FindLaw.com, all states measure intoxication based on a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) above a set limit (now .08 in all states). This means if you have BAC at or above .08, you are intoxicated in the eyes of the law, and no additional proof of driving impairment is necessary.
'Many people mistakenly believe that a DUI is a traffic violation,' says John Callahan of Norris & Callahan, a Chicago-based criminal defense law firm. 'The reality is a DUI is a criminal offense that carries heavy consequences, including jail time.'
If you regularly drink and drive- the odds of being pulled over for a DUI are just a matter of when. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), about two-thirds of DUIs involve a first-time offender. First-time offenders have typically driven drunk about 87 times before being caught.
Callahan reminds drivers that a police officer can ask you to pull over for any traffic violation - from a burned-out brake light to texting while driving (illegal in a growing number of states). If an officer suspects that you're under the influence, he or she can begin the investigation process, which includes observation, sobriety tests and blood alcohol measurement.
'Police officers are especially on the alert for underage drinkers who attend schools in college towns and during large college events such as a college basketball game where many students may be drinking on and off-campus,' Callahan adds. 'Many states have zero tolerance laws toward drivers under 21 who are arrested for drinking and driving. These laws are much stricter, where a DUI arrest can be made if a driver, under the legal age to drink, has even a trace of alcohol in their system.
'Beyond the risk of injuring another driver or even the passengers in your car, I strongly urge drivers (including snowmobilers) to never drink and drive,' Callahan says. 'It's not worth the risk. If you do choose to imbibe, and you are charged with a DUI, take my advice and get a lawyer who specializes in DUIs and is located in the state you've been charged. Especially if you've been convicted of a previous DUI offense, as the consequences are much more severe.'
Here are some additional tips from Callahan about driving-under-the-influence laws:
Don't do it. Period. The absolute best way to avoid a DUI is to never get behind the wheel of your car if you've been drinking. Call a cab. Arrange a ride with a friend who has not been drinking. Agree with your spouse before you go to dinner or out to an event as to who will be the designated driver for the evening.
Watch your consumption of more than just alcohol. Pain or anxiety medicines prescribed for an illness, such as severe back pain, can impair your ability to drive, too. Read your prescription label carefully for warnings about drowsiness.
Be careful at holiday office parties. Avoid drinking at office holiday parties. Not only could it lead to a DUI following the party, alcohol can lead to embarrassing situations that could damage your career.
Understand that snowmobiles and ATVs count, too. Many states have DUI laws that extend to other motorized vehicles, as well. In snowy states from Washington to Maine - operating a snowmobile or all-terrain vehicle while intoxicated is illegal, and can be prosecuted just like receiving a DUI while driving an automobile.
Be aware of sobriety checkpoints. During peak periods of alcohol consumption, such as New Year's Eve or St. Patrick's Day - local police may set up sobriety checkpoints in your area. Even if you have not been drinking, it's important to cooperate with police.
Don't refuse a sobriety test. When you obtain the privilege of driving a motor vehicle, you are effectively giving your consent to DUI testing if a police officer reasonably believes you are under the influence while operating a motor vehicle. This is called implied consent and many states have these laws on their books. If you refuse to take a breath, blood or urine test, prosecutors may turn to the implied consent laws when you go to court. In many states, refusal to submit to a chemical test may be used to increase the penalties if you're convicted of a DUI.
Hire an experienced lawyer. Don't take a DUI lightly. Hire an attorney who is experienced in defending people who have been charged with a DUI in the state in which you were arrested - an attorney who understands both the scientific and medical concepts of DUI. While there is a fair amount of consistency between states in regard to DUI, laws do vary from state to state. To find a DUI attorney in your local area, visit the lawyer directory on FindLaw.com.
Don't count on a plea bargain. It doesn't work like the police shows on TV. Prosecutors rarely negotiate plea bargains in DUI cases. Some states have laws that prohibit prosecutors from offering plea bargains with DUI defendants.