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Teens and Driving Under the Influence: One Drink is Too Many

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

A hypothetical scenario:

You have to drive somewhere. Maybe your parents asked you to run an errand to the grocery store or the dry-cleaners. Or, if you’re reading this after the COVID-19 pandemic, you need to get home from a party. Problem is, you had a beer. Or a glass of wine. Either at the hypothetical party or at home, when you sneaked a drink from your parents’ liquor cabinet.

Of course, underage drinking is illegal and never recommended. And we know you’d never do that kind of thing. But since we’re going with a hypothetical scenario here, bear with us.

Can I drive if I had just one beer?

It was just one drink. A few sips. Harmless, you think. Right? Nothing is going to happen if you just drive those few short blocks home. Right?


Because here’s the truth:

One drink can cause a drunk-driving accident. And if it doesn’t cause an accident, it can get you a ticket – and maybe arrested – for driving under the influence (DUI).

“Oh, I’ll be super careful while driving,” you argue. “Nothing’s going to happen to me,” you insist.

Unfortunately, when you drink, you can’t necessarily control that outcome. Alcohol can impair your mental faculties – even, in certain cases, just one drink.

How Alcohol Alters Cognitive Ability

Physiologically speaking, alcohol negatively impacts the following brain areas:

  • Hippocampus: the hippocampus plays a major role in movement and spatial orientation.
  • Amygdala: the amygdala is part of the limbic system, which governs our emotions, responses to external stimuli, and some behavior.
  • Prefrontal Cortex: this is the executive function center of the brain, which regulates decision-making, planning, language, rational judgment, and impulse control.

What does this all really mean? You might think you’re driving as carefully as possible, but – due to alcohol’s effect on these areas of your brain – you may not even realize that the car trying to get into your lane is closer than you think. Or, you may think you should speed up in order to make that yellow light, when really you should slow down. Thanks to alcohol, you might swerve into the other lane or drive at an unreasonable speed – too fast or even too slow.

In short, alcohol makes you more prone to get into an accident. Which means you may end up hurting – or killing – someone else, yourself, or both.

And this statistic is all the evidence you need to realize this happens more often than you think:

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in the U.S.

Legal Problems

Perhaps, by some miracle or stroke of luck, you don’t get into an accident. You might still get stopped by the police if they (or another driver) notice something is amiss. Here’s what might happen: the police may pull you over and ask you a few questions. They will likely administer a breathalyzer test. If you have a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.01 percent, you’ll get charged with a Zero-Tolerance Policy of Underage DUI.

Which means you’ll lose your license for a year. To clarify: that means you won’t be able to drive anywhere, by yourself, for 365 days. You’ll always be hitching rides with friends or asking your parents to drive you places.

Ok, you’re now saying, but one beer doesn’t even count! The alcohol doesn’t even get into your bloodstream!

Wrong again.

Know what it takes to reach a BAC of .01%? Depending on your height and weight, it take less than one beer or standard drink consumed in an hour.

What About Two Beers?

But perhaps you had more than one drink. Which, let’s be honest, is very likely. It’s difficult to stop at just one drink, especially if you’re in a social setting.

If you drink two beers, then your BAC could likely be at least .05%. And the consequences for that are more severe.

In California, you will:

  • Lose your license until you’re eighteen, or for one year, depending on which is longer.
  • Be forced to attend and pay for a three-month DUI course.
  • Receive two demerit points on your driving record.
  • Pay a $100 fine.

Additionally, your DUI will go on your permanent record, affecting future school, scholarship, and employment opportunities.

How About Three or Four?

Now what if you had more than one or two alcoholic drinks? If you drink three beers or alcoholic beverages in an hour, then your BAC will likely be at least 0.08%.

What are the consequences for a DUI on that level?

  • Fines between $390 – $1000, court costs, and lawyer fees, which can easily run upwards of $10,000. If you’re under 18, your parents pay. If you’re over 18, you pay.
  • Up to six months in a county jail (if over 18) or a youth detention facility (if under 18).
  • Suspension of license for at least one year.
  • Probation for three to five years
  • A three to nine-month alcohol/DUI education program, which you (or your parents) pay for.

Also, a DUI on that level is considered a criminal misdemeanor. This will go on your permanent record and affect future school, scholarship, and employment opportunities.

So the next time a friend (or that voice inside your head) urges you to go for just one drink, consider whether it’s worth losing your license for a year. Or whether it’s worth spending three months taking a torturous DUI course, plus two points on your record, which could happen if one drink easily turns into two. Or whether it’s worth thousands of dollars in court fees, jail time, probation, and a criminal misdemeanor on your public record.

And lastly, whether it’s worth the loss of someone’s life – or your own.

Is it worth any of that?

Absolutely not.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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