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Is Buzzed Driving Drunk Driving?


Unless you've never had cable, or have resided under a rock for quite some time, you have likely seen the public service announcements- or ad campaigns- warning that "buzzed driving is drunk driving." The message seems to be clear enough: Don't get behind the wheel if you are buzzed, 'cause you are breaking the law. However, is that really true? The short answer: can be.

In Georgia, there are two garden variety DUIs. The first is testing over the statutory limit; .08 for drivers 21 and over. So, if you take a breath test (or blood test) and it comes back at a .08 or higher, you are in violation of Georgia's DUI per se statute. The second type, and the more relevant one for this question, is the DUI less safe. As I describe to every potential client and jury I am in front of, DUI less safe is the officer's opinion that you were too "drunk" to be driving- too impaired to be driving- safely the night (or day) in question.

So, how does "buzzed driving" fit into this equation? Well, per, the definition of buzz includes, "to feel high especially from a drug." However,'s definition and example is, perhaps, a little more in line with popular usage. Their definition seems to suggest "buzzed" is step 1, sort of the beginning stages of becoming intoxicated, or impaired. Popular usage of buzzed, from what I've absorbed, uses buzzed as sort of a beginning, comfortable, low-on-the-scale, state of alcohol intoxication. Keep in mind that technically a sip of beer will have you "intoxicated." How much beer does it take to become "impaired?" That varies from person to person. You can be intoxicated without being impaired. In fact, judges in Georgia routinely read juries the law that reiterates that it is NOT (that's right---not) illegal to drink and drive ... merely showing someone had consumed alcohol is not enough to convict of DUI.

So, is buzzed driving drunk driving? Again, it can be, but it is not necessairly. One can, of course, appreciate the goal of these PSAs: to save lives and deter the general public from driving when their abilities are questionable, due to alcohol intake. But, is it as black and white as the ad makes it seem? No.

Tolerance, driving behavior, physical manifestations, field sobriety performance, and chemical testing all go into a DUI case and are central to a DUI prosecution. I've had many trials where there is no doubt that my client was buzzed, but was exonerated of DUI. Usually these people walk fine, speak fine, answer questions politely and in a sensible manner, do decently on crazy gymnastics... I meant "field sobriety tests," etc. etc. I think jurors deciding these types of cases often ask themselves, "does that mean I have been guilty of DUI every time I've driven when I look and sound like Joe Defendant over there??" The answer scares people, so they give us a fighting chance to beat the charge.

While the goal is certainly not to embolden anyone to have that extra round of drinks this weekend before driving home, it is certainly fair to point out that it is not necessarily illegal to drink and drive. What will the future bring? TBD.

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