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Why there is a different BAC standard for drivers under 21

The law treats drivers 21 and older differently than drivers younger than 21 when it comes to driving under the influence. In fact, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation says, "Drivers under 21 years of age are required by law to maintain 'absolute sobriety,' and, for them, driving with any amount of alcohol in their system is illegal."

Meanwhile, drivers 21 and older may be able to avoid an OWI charge with a BAC just below 0.08 percent. Why the different treatment?

Young drivers are risky even when sober

Statistics tell a story: Younger drivers can be dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that involvement in deadly crashes is three times more likely for drivers 16 to 19 years old than their older counterparts. The first few months after a teen gets licensed tend to be the most dangerous, and the danger goes up with the number of teen passengers in the car.

Even sober, teens are more likely than other drivers to do the following:

  • Not use seat belts 
  • Make errors
  • Make questionable decisions
  • Speed
  • Follow other cars too closely
  • Underestimate their risk of crashing
  • Feel pressured by their peers

Throw alcohol into the mix, and speed control, focus, coordination and a host of other activities may fly out the window.

Young drivers are still learning how to balance freedom and responsibility

With freedom should come responsibility, but some teens and college students make serious, if understandable, mistakes on the way to learning that lesson. Alcohol can affect teens' bodies more severely than it affects adults' bodies. For example, teens may weigh less and be more prone to partying and binge drinking.

The legal system does understand that teens are still developing

While teens have a lower BAC standard than adult drivers and can face charges, fines, license suspension and a host of other things for suspected OWI, many people in the legal system do understand that teens make mistakes. After all, they used to be teens themselves. Moreover, teens may be more responsive than adults to the lessons learned in a driver education class and to take these lessons to heart.

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