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Here’s what you need to know about drunk driving in the Carolinas

Refusing to take a blood-alcohol test from a law enforcement officer can cost you your driver's license in North and South Carolina.
Refusing to take a blood-alcohol test from a law enforcement officer can cost you your driver's license in North and South Carolina. Observer file photo

What are the rules on being intoxicated or driving while drunk in North and South Carolina? We checked with the experts to answer your questions, from the legal definition of drunk to whether you can drive bikes or scooters while drinking. Note: Individual cases may differ; consult an attorney if you’ve been charged.

Q: What is “legally drunk” in North Carolina?

It’s illegal to drive a vehicle if you’re noticeably impaired or have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or higher. If you’re driving a commercial motor vehicle, the limit is 0.04 percent. Noticeably impaired (also called “appreciably impaired”) means that an officer has decided even without a blood-alcohol test that you are too physically or mentally impaired to drive and is allowed to charge you.

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Q: What is “legally drunk” in South Carolina?

It’s illegal to drive a vehicle if your blood-alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or higher. If you hold a commercial license, the limit is 0.04 percent or higher. If you’re younger than 21, the limit is 0.02 percent. (In South Carolina, youths under age 21 can drink in a private home with or without their parent’s consent as long as the alcohol is legally purchased.)

Q: What’s the penalty for drunken driving in North Carolina?

Misdemeanor fines range from $200 to $4,000, and potential sentences range from 24 hours to 2 years in jail. You may also be required to do community service and have your license restricted for 30 to 90 days. If you’re convicted of a felony, you’re required to serve a minimum of a year in jail and go through a substance abuse program. If you’re caught driving while your license is revoked, your vehicle can be seized and sold by your county school board.

DWI checkpoints
If you're caught driving while intoxicated in North Carolina or South Carolina, the penalties will vary widely depending on whether you've been charged before and whether you cooperate with blood-alcohol tests. Observer files

Q: What’s the penalty for drunken driving in South Carolina?

Penalties vary based on the level of intoxication, whether you refused to take a blood-alcohol test at the scene and previous convictions. The first three charges of DUI or DUAC are misdemeanors, with jail terms ranging from 30 days to three years, fines of $400 to $6,300, and license revocations from six months to four years. After three convictions, it becomes a felony with five to seven years in prison and permanent loss of license.

Q: For how long can you lose your driver’s license?

That varies, depending on the charge. In North Carolina, if you refuse to take a blood-alcohol test, you can lose your license for 30 days on the spot, and for up to a year after a hearing, even if you aren’t convicted.

Q: What’s the difference between DUI and DWI?

In North Carolina, you’re charged with Driving While Impaired whether you’re found to be intoxicated or impaired by drug use. In South Carolina, you can be charged with DUI, Driving Under the Influence, for both alcohol and drug use, or with DUAC, Driving With an Unlawful Alcohol Concentration. DUAC is based solely on the results of a blood-alcohol test and not on evidence of impairment.

Q: Can a felony conviction for DWI keep me from voting?

In both Carolinas, you lose the right to vote while you are serving your sentence, including parole or probation. You can apply to have your voting rights restored after all prison time, parole and/or probation are completed.

Q: Can a breathalyzer test tell if I’ve been smoking marijuana?

No. But if an officer believes you’ve been impaired by something other than alcohol, you can be ordered to take a blood test for the presence of drugs. If you refuse the test, your license can be revoked.

Q: I was riding in a car being driven by someone who was drinking. Am I liable if there’s an accident?

If the car is registered to you, you can be charged with aiding and abetting. If it’s not your car, you’re usually not charged. However, if a civil suit results from an accident or property damage, you could be liable whether you own the car or not.

Q: Is it illegal to be drunk if I’m walking home or riding a bike or scooter?

It isn’t illegal if you’re walking. But it could be if you’re riding a bike or a scooter. Even though a bike doesn’t have a motor, it is considered a vehicle, and you can be charged for operating one while intoxicated. Electric scooters are so new, the rules are still being decided, according to Omar Quereshi, an alcohol law enforcement agent for the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation. But if you’re operating one on a road while you’re impaired, it could lead to an arrest. You also can be charged if you’re operating a bike or scooter in a parking lot while intoxicated. The only place you can’t be charged with DWI is in a private driveway or on private land.

Q: Am I violating the open-container law if I have a beverage in my car that is closed, but has a broken seal?

In North Carolina, you can be charged if you have an opened beer or bottle of wine in the passenger compartment, defined as the area within reach of a seated passenger or driver (including the glove compartment). You can transport liquor with a broken seal if it is out of reach of the driver or passengers, in the trunk or in the area behind the last upright back seat in the case of a station wagon or hatchback. It’s legal to have an open container of wine or beer or wine in a limo or taxi that’s registered as “for hire” with the Department of Motor Vehicles, but not in a ride-share vehicle, such as Uber or Lyft. In South Carolina, you can’t have an opened container of wine or beer in the passenger compartment, but you can transport liquor with a broken seal in the trunk, luggage or cargo area. You can’t have an open container in any vehicle for hire, including a taxi.

Q: Is a bar or restaurant liable if you’re arrested for drunken driving?

Bar and restaurant employees are responsible for not serving to underage or intoxicated customers. If employees violate these laws, this can result in fines, suspensions or a revocation of liquor permits. Restaurants and bars can face civil suits if they serve customers who are underage and/or intoxicated and later become involved in a serious accident or cause property damage.

Q: Can a bar or restaurant stop you from driving after consuming alcohol?

In North Carolina, the business isn’t responsible for whether you drive, but it is responsible for continuing to serve you if you appear to be intoxicated. Employees of a bar or restaurant can’t physically stop you from driving, but they can be liable if you were served too much and get into an accident or cause property damage. South Carolina doesn’t have a dram shop law or social-host liability statute, but the state courts do allow victims to seek damages from establishments and individuals who overserve alcohol to drivers.

Q: Can a bar or restaurant refuse to serve you?

Bar and restaurant employees are trained to refuse service if they suspect the customer is intoxicated or underage. Under North Carolina statutes, a bar or restaurant can refuse to serve you for any reason other than race, religion, national origin, gender or disability.

Q: I’m having a party. Am I responsible for how much my guests drink?

Because of social-host liability in North Carolina, an injured person (or their survivors in a fatality) may be able to seek damages from you if you provided or served the alcohol, knew or should have known that the person was intoxicated and knew the person would later be driving. This also applies to social hosts who are providing alcohol to minors. South Carolina doesn’t have a social-host liability statute, but courts allow victims to file claims for compensation.

Q. What can affect how many drinks you can have before testing as intoxicated?

Biological sex, weight, medications, food consumption, health concerns and speed of consumption can all affect how many drinks you can have before testing as intoxicated. While some guidelines suggest you can drink a certain number of drinks within a set time limit, blood-alcohol levels and intoxication are highly individual and depend on many factors. Here are some of the things that can affect your intoxication level:

  1. Biological sex: Metabolism rate is different in women than men. Studies have also shown that women have fewer enzymes used to metabolize alcohol than men.
  2. Weight: Your weight affects the space in which alcohol can diffuse in the body. For example, if you weigh 40 more pounds than another person, you will have a lower blood-alcohol concentration after drinking the same amount.
  3. Medications: For example, combining alcohol with medications such as antidepressants (Zoloft, Prozac, etc.) can create an increased response to alcohol.
  4. Food consumption: Drinking on an empty stomach results in a faster absorption rate of alcohol, raising blood-alcohol levels more quickly.
  5. Health conditions: For example, genetic enzyme deficiencies may affect the body’s ability to process alcohol.
  6. Speed of consumption.


An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about transporting liquor bottles with a broken seal. You can transport liquor bottles with a broken seal in the trunk of a car, as long as it is out of reach of passengers or the driver. That includes the area behind the last upright back seat in the case of a station wagon or hatchback.

Kathleen Purvis; 704-358-5236, and Myah Ward,