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Effectiveness: 3 Star Cost: $$
Use: Unknown
Time: Short

Zero-tolerance laws set a maximum BAC of less than .02 g/dL or less for drivers under 21. Violators have their driver licenses suspended or revoked. There is strong evidence that zero-tolerance laws reduce alcohol-related crashes and injuries (Voas & Lacey, 2011; Goodwin et al., 2005, Strategy B3; Shults et al., 2001). Fell et al. (2009) estimate that zero-tolerance laws save 159 lives each year.

However, zero-tolerance laws often are not actively enforced or publicized (Hedlund et al., 2001; Voas & Lacey, 2011). Studies have found that young drivers are not arrested in proportion to their involvement in alcohol-related crashes (Hingson et al., 2004). One exception is Washington State, where a study found arrests for alcohol violations among 16- to 20-year-old drivers increased by about 50% after the zero-tolerance law went into effect (McCartt et al., 2007). Enforcement may be greater in Washington because the law allows officers to request tests for alcohol based on suspicion of either a DWI or zero-tolerance offense. In other States where drivers can only be tested if DWI is suspected, zero-tolerance laws may be more difficult to enforce.

Use: Zero-tolerance laws have been in effect in all States since 1998. The degree to which they are enforced in States is unknown.

Effectiveness: An early (1992) study in Maryland found that alcohol-involved crashes for drivers under 21 dropped by 21% in six counties after the zero-tolerance law was implemented. After the law was publicized extensively, these crashes dropped by an additional 30% (Blomberg, 1992). No other studies have examined the effect of increasing enforcement and publicity for an existing zero-tolerance law. Lacey, Jones, and Wiliszowski (2000) documented how zero-tolerance laws are administered and enforced in 4 States. Highly publicized enforcement has proven effective in increasing compliance with many traffic safety laws and reducing crashes and injuries: see for example sobriety checkpoints (the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Section 2.1) and seat belt use mobilizations (the Seat Belts and Child Restraints chapter, Section 2.1). A review of impaired driving law impacts on alcohol-related fatalities from 1980 to 2009 found zero-tolerance laws to have the most impact with an estimate of 19 to 29 lives saved in 2012 (Ying et al., 2013). The study also found that areas with historically high impaired-driving fatalities may need ex-post regulations, such as the zero-tolerance and other penalizing laws, to reverse the trend. This contrasts to other locations that can show improvements with preventative regulations such as the MLDA and open container laws.

Costs: Zero-tolerance laws can be enforced during regular patrols or during special patrols directed at times and areas when young impaired drivers may be present. Enforcement will require moderate costs for appropriate training, publicity, and perhaps equipment (see Other issues).

Time to implement: Enforcement programs can be implemented within 3 or 4 months, as soon as appropriate training, publicity, and equipment are in place.

Other issues:

  • Zero-tolerance-law provisions: Zero-tolerance laws are far easier to enforce if the offense is an administrative rather than criminal violation as an administrative license suspension can be implemented without a court conviction, and if LEOs can use PBTs (preliminary breath test devices) at the roadside to determine if the law has been violated and, if so, to seize the driver’s license (Jones & Lacey, 2001). Some State laws require the same probable cause as for a standard DWI arrest, or even require a full DWI arrest, before a BAC test for a zero-tolerance-law violation can be administered. In these States, the zero-tolerance law is not enforced independently of the standard DWI law, and in fact young drivers may not be aware of the zero-tolerance law (Hingson et al., 2004).
  • PBT and PAS: Preliminary breath test devices are important for effective and efficient enforcement in States that allow PBT use for zero-tolerance laws. A passive alcohol sensor (PAS) can help officers detect violators who have consumed alcohol. See the Alcohol- and Drug-Impaired Driving chapter, Sections 2.3 and 2.4.
  • Holding juveniles in custody: A complication of enforcing zero-tolerance laws is deciding how and where to hold young offenders once they are taken into custody. NHTSA helped produce an implementation guide for developing a juvenile holdover program (NHTSA, 2001).