What Are the Legal Limits of Alcohol in the United States and Each State?

Written by | Updated May 7, 2019

We all know that alcohol impairs driving ability. To standardize how much alcohol impairs our ability, states have established legal limits—a point, measured with tests such as a breath test, after which it is considered unsafe to operate a vehicle or boat. There are also restrictions on when it is acceptable to be in public places under the influence of alcohol.

Driving Limits

Most states have now set their legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at .08%, though Utah’s will soon sit at .05%. Higher than that qualifies you as either driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while impaired (DWI), depending on the state.

If you’re under 21, the policy is zero tolerance. Any amount of alcohol in your blood is grounds for a DUI or DWI charge and arrest. This is done to discourage underage drinking because the legal age for possession and purchase of alcohol in the United States is 21.

Boating Limits

It is also illegal to operate a boat or watercraft while under the influence of alcohol. This is known as BUI, or boating under the influence, and it’s taken just as seriously as a DUI. BUIs carry a $1,000 fine, plus criminal penalties up to $5,000 and possible jail time. You may also have your boat seized and your boating license suspended.

States typically follow the same standard as driving when determining if an individual is considered intoxicated while boating, meaning that a BAC of .08% is the legal limit in most places.

Public Intoxication

There are also laws against being visibly intoxicated in public places—even if you’re not driving. This is known as public intoxication, drunk in public, or drunk and disorderly. There is no BAC limit for this charge; instead, it is based on behavior. If an individual is no longer able to conduct themselves in a reasonable manner due to drinking (or drug use), they could be charged with public intoxication.

Specific laws vary from state to state. In some areas, you can drink publicly if your behavior remains reasonable. In others, even having alcohol outside of a bar or restaurant is prohibited.

Public intoxication is typically a minor offense, classed as a misdemeanor, but it is still an embarrassing crime to commit and can have ripple effects throughout your life.

To learn more about safety—both on the road and at home—check out our comprehensive SafeWise Resources.