When is it legal for me to drink and drive?

Drivers’ BAC levels may not peak until well after they have stopped drinking, which may lead to them being arrested for DUI the next morning.

Each year, numerous people throughout the state of Virginia are arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. In fact, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles reports that more than 24,800 people were convicted of driving under the influence in 2014 alone. Sometimes, such arrests and convictions occur after drivers thought they had done everything right. And in truth, Virginia only criminalizes adult individuals for drinking too much alcohol and then driving. Specifically, it is only after someone operates a vehicle when they are either is legally intoxicated, or have a blood alcohol concentration ("BAC") of .08 or higher that the Commonwealth deems their conduct illegal. As a result, the question becomes: How can someone know when they've "had too much?" When the average citizen does not have a breath test machine, it is especially difficult to know the answer to that question.

Below is a discussion of how alcohol affects the body and one's BAC, which we hope you will find useful in understanding the answer of "how much is too much." However, it is important to note that each individual handles and metabolizes alcohol differently, and as a result, the most prudent and advisable course of action to avoid an arrest for DUI, is to not drink any alcohol and operate a motor vehicle . That said, since the legislature has not made it completely illegal for an adult to drink any alcohol and drive, we offer the following information.

Factors that affect BAC levels

Integral to many DUI arrests are drivers' blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, levels. The BAC level is a measurement of the alcohol to blood ratio in the body. There are a number of factors that may affect this ratio. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, these factors include the following:

  • Whether a driver has had something to eat
  • A driver's gender
  • A driver's weight
  • The number of drinks a driver consumes
  • How fast a driver consumes alcoholic beverages

In general, the type of alcoholic beverage a driver consumes does not affect his or her BAC level. This is because the percent of alcohol is the same in one 12-ounce beer, one 1.5-ounce shot of distilled liquor and one five-ounce glass of wine. While some medications may affect drivers' impairment levels, they do not affect their BAC levels.

Metabolizing alcohol in the body

Immediately after alcohol is consumed, the body begins to metabolize it. The body eliminates alcohol through oxidation, sweating and breathing. The AAA DUI Justice Link points out that the body is able to eliminate alcohol at an average rate of .015 to .017 percent per hour. Thus, it may take an average-sized person between 75 and 90 minutes to process the alcohol contained in one standard-sized drink. If a person consumes more alcohol than their body is able to metabolize in a given time period, then the alcohol begins to build up in their systems.

The effects of time

Many people think that going to sleep, eating something, drinking coffee or any other number of things may help them to sober up. However, time is the only way for people to get sober after drinking. In addition to taking time for people's bodies to metabolize the alcohol they consume, it also takes time for their BAC levels to peak. Therefore, they may not be at their maximum BAC level until after they have stopped drinking.

For example, a person has two drinks every hour from 10 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. His or her BAC level may not reach its maximum level until 3 a.m. Since it takes time for the body to process the alcohol in the drinks, he or she may still have a BAC level of .08 percent at 8:30 a.m. the next morning. If he or she drives the next morning, he or she could be arrested for DUI.

Obtaining legal representation

Drunk driving is a serious charge in Virginia, which carries potentially lasting consequences. Motorists who are arrested for DUI may find it of benefit to seek legal counsel. A lawyer may explain the laws as they apply to their cases, as well as explain their options and help them to build a solid criminal defense.