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Underage drinking and driving: a refresher on the basics

The legal drinking age in Wisconsin is 21. With a few exceptions, all of the provisions of state law prohibiting operating motor vehicles while drunk apply to anyone under 21 as well. Serious penalties can result.

One difference is that underage alcohol conviction records of youths under 17 are kept confidential. The Department of Transportation isn't allowed to provide information about a license suspension, restriction or revocation because of that conviction to anyone other than a court or one of its officers, the child's parents or guardian and the child. Protecting the rights of anyone arrested on a drunk driving charge is important. Providing such protection to someone underage can be critical.

A recent alcohol impairment study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows impairment of some driving-related skills begins with the smallest amount of alcohol in one's system. Drivers under the age of 21 must, under the law, maintain what is called absolute sobriety. Any amount of alcohol in their systems is illegal. Using unlawful, over-the-counter or prescription drugs, or a combination of drugs and alcohol, and driving is also illegal. A violation of the absolute sobriety law carries a penalty of a three-month license suspension, a fine, and four demerit points. The penalties are doubled if a passenger under 16 is in the vehicle at the time.

With the winter months at hand, it should be noted that these laws apply to vehicles other than cars and trucks. Snowmobiling under the influence is illegal. The operation of all-terrain vehicles, motor boats and aircraft with a detectable presence of a controlled substance is also for any Wisconsinite.

People facing underage drinking charges should seek legal guidance to help ensure that their rights are protected during the process. Penalties and arrest records can affect individuals and families well into the future. It's helpful for people young and old to recognize that if a police officer believes they are driving in an impaired state, regardless of a blood/breath alcohol concentration measurement, an arrest and prosecution can happen.

Source: Wisconsin Department of Transportation, "Drunk driving law" Jan. 08, 2015

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