Unless you are of a certain age, you may not know that until 1988, the drinking age in many states was 18 years old. It was not until 1988 that every state raised the drinking age to 21. The raising of the drinking age in all states to 21 came only after the federal government enacted a law that forced the states to raise the age or lose federal highway funds.

Prior to 1988, states set the legal drinking age according to state law, which resulted in a lot of under 21 drunk driving between states. For example, in the early 80’s the drinking age in New Jersey was 21 but it was 18 in New York. This not only sent youth across the state borders to purchase alcohol but resulted in dangerous roads between states travelled by college-aged partiers on the way home to their more restrictive state. Back then, the term “designated driver” did not exist and the attitude towards driving while under the influence was tolerated much more than it is today.

Multiple studies have established that raising the drinking age across the nation had a direct effect on reducing motor vehicle fatalities caused by under age 21 drinking and driving. Unfortunately, underage drinking remains a national issue and is the greatest mortality risk—primarily related to fatal motor vehicle incidents— for those under 21 years of age.

Of equal importance has been the changing attitudes about drinking and driving under the influence. Zero-tolerance laws have also contributed to the declining underage drunk driving fatalities. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was instrumental in pushing the legislation to raise the minimum drinking age and since then been one of the driving forces behind the shifting attitudes toward drunk driving. Virtually all studies, as well as our own observations, have shown that while underage drinking persists, it is far below the levels of the 1980’s. But while the statistics have improved since the mid-1980’s, there are still far too many young people involved in underage drinking. Not a day goes by that a young person is not injured or killed because of drunk driving.

In California, a driver under the age of 21 who is arrested for driving with even a minimum amount of alcohol (Over .01% BAC) in his or her system is in violation of the zero-tolerance laws. If the underage driver is arrested for driving with a BAC of over 0.05%, the penalties increase. In both cases, the underage driver faces a one-year driver’s license suspension. A 0.01%-0.05% BAC can (and likely will) register after just one beer or glass of wine.

As with a standard DUI, there are defenses to the zero-tolerance laws. In addition to the potential challenge of the legality of traffic stop or arrest, the BAC measurement may also be challenged. This is especially true since we are talking about such low blood alcohol level measurements. For example, a 0.01% measurement could be the result of residual mouth alcohol from a breath spray, certain medications, or other conditions that caused the breath test to register a small amount of alcohol.

Orange County DUI defense attorney William Weinberg has been defending drivers arrested for DUI for over 25 years. He offers a free consultation to discuss your individual matter: your options and potential defenses. You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at

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