Drink driving is a serious offence with potentially life-changing consequences, including losing your licence and even going to prison. This is because by getting behind the wheel of a car while intoxicated, you are not only endangering your own life, but the lives of other motorists and pedestrians. A conviction for drink-driving will also mean that your car insurance costs will significantly increase, you may be at risk of losing your livelihood if you drive for work and you may not be able to travel to certain countries.

Below we look at what happens if you get caught drink driving in the UK, from the different types of drink driving penalty to what you should do once your ban is up. Importantly, if you are charged with drink driving, you should always seek specialist legal advice.

What happens if you get caught drink driving?

The police have the right to ask any motorist who is driving, attempting to drive or in charge of a motor vehicle who they suspect has been drinking alcohol to take a breath test.

If you fail the breath test, you will be taken to a police station to be breathalysed again. If that shows you are over the limit, you will be charged with drink driving. Failing to take the roadside test without reasonable excuse is an offence in itself, where you can expect to be arrested if you refuse to supply a breath sample. Equally, refusing the police station test is a separate offence. You may also be asked to give either a blood or urine sample.

What if you are charged with drink driving but not in a car?

Even if you are not driving, but are caught in charge of a motor vehicle while above the legal alcohol limit, or unfit through drink, you could still be taken to the police station. This is because it is an offence to be in charge of a vehicle on a road or other public place while over the limit, such as where you have the keys in the ignition and the engine running.

In most cases, the offence of being in charge of a vehicle will cover where a motorist is sat in the driver’s seat, or inside the vehicle and in possession the keys. However, it is entirely possible to be guilty of this offence even if you are not physically in your vehicle. This could be where, for example, you are in possession of the keys and in close proximity to the vehicle with a clear reason to drive, such as having an appointment, needing to be at work or any other evidence that strongly suggests you were intending to drive your vehicle.

As such, to avoid a drink driving penalty, you should steer clear of your vehicle if you are over the limit, as even going near it could be construed as an intention to drink drive.

Drink driving penalties

For driving while under the influence of alcohol, you can expect a harsh drunk driving penalty, including a mandatory disqualification from driving, a fine and even imprisonment.

For the offence of driving, or attempting to drive, while over the legal limit or unfit through drink, you could be looking at 6 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a minimum 1-year ban. You will also face similar penalties for refusing to provide the police with a specimen of breath, blood or urine for analysis. If you are not actually driving, but caught by the police in charge of a motor vehicle while over the legal limit or unfit through drink, you could still get up to 3 months’ in prison, a £2,500 fine, plus a possible ban or 10 points.

At the most serious end of the spectrum when it comes to drink driving offences, for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink you could now be looking at up to life imprisonment, an unlimited fine and at least a 5-year driving ban.

Is there a drink driving minimum ban for motorists?

Drink driving carries a mandatory minimum 12-month ban, even for a first time drink driving offence. However, if you are banned from driving for a period of 12 months or more, you may be given the opportunity to reduce your ban by a quarter of the length ordered by the court for completing a drink-drive rehabilitation scheme course.

It is entirely up to the court to offer a rehabilitation course, but you will be required to decide in court if you want to take a course or not, if offered, where you cannot change your mind later. If you agree, you will have to pay for the course at a cost of up to £250.

Before you go to court, in anticipation that you may be given this option if you are found guilty, you should identify a course that you want to take. There is a useful link at GOV.UK that will allow you to search online for different courses in your area, where you can search by location, sector (including large goods vehicles, passenger carrying vehicles and taxis), or by the course name and number. Having selected a course, the court will send your details to the course provider who will forward you the available dates and when you must complete your course by. You can change to a different course with another provider at any point before you book, without any additional charge, although you will need to ask the provider of the course you had originally chosen to arrange this on your behalf.

All courses are face-to-face, take place over 16 hours, usually run on three different days spread over 3 weeks, and will have other drink-drive offenders on them. You will be given a certificate of completion from the course provider when you finish the course. They will also send a copy to the court that sentenced you, at which stage the court will inform DVLA so that your driving ban is reduced accordingly. Importantly, you will be responsible for completing the drink driving course by your deadline date, where your ban will not be reduced if you do not complete the course in time or do not pay for your course.

First time drink driving offence rules

If you are caught by the police driving, or attempting to drive, while above the legal alcohol limit or unfit through drink, the drink driving penalty will still be a ban from driving for at least 1 year for a first time offence, together with a fine and even a custodial sentence.

Under the relevant sentencing guidelines, the court must disqualify any motorist guilty of drink driving for at least 12 months. Equally, if you have two or more previous disqualifications for periods of at least 56 days for other motoring offences in the preceding 3 years, you will be looking a mandatory 2-year ban. This is because the minimum obligatory ban is automatically increased in these circumstances.

Even without any previous disqualifications, you may be looking at a ban of more than 12 months for first time drink driving, depending on how much over the legal limit you were and the presence of any aggravating features, such as carrying passengers or being involved in an accident. Typically, your breath reading will provide the court with a starting point for sentencing, where the higher the reading, the more severe the drink driving penalty.

If the case is serious enough, you could also be looking at either a community order or prison term, regardless of having a clean record. For example, if you were caught driving with an alcohol reading of 120–150 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres (ml) of breath, where the legal breath limit in England and Wales is 35 micrograms, the sentencing range is anything from a high level community order to 26 weeks’ imprisonment. The legal alcohol limit for drivers in Scotland is even lower, at 22 micrograms per 100ml of breath.

The period of disqualification in such serious cases would be between 29 to 36 months, to be extended by one half of any prison term imposed. This is because where the court imposes an immediate custodial sentence, the period the motorist will spend in custody must be taken into account to avoid a driving ban either expiring or being significantly diminished. For example, where the court imposes a 6-month prison sentence and a 12-month disqualification, the driving ban will be extended to 15 months. However, where a rehabilitation course is completed, the reduction will remain at a maximum of 3 months.

What happens if you are caught drink driving a 2nd time?

For first time drink driving, you could be looking at 6 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a minimum 1-year driving ban. For a drink driving second offence, if convicted twice in 10 years, this could result in a minimum 3-year ban. Under the sentencing guidelines for obligatory disqualifications, a motorist must be disqualified for at least 3 years if they are convicted of one of the following drink-driving related offences and has, within the last 10 year-period, been convicted of any of these offences:

  • driving, or attempting to drive, while over the limit
  • driving, or attempting to drive, while unfit to do so
  • failing to provide a specimen (driving/attempting to drive)
  • driving, or attempting to drive, with a concentration of specified controlled drug above the specified limit
  • causing death by careless driving while under the influence of either drink or drugs.

For an especially high alcohol reading, the period of disqualification for getting caught drink driving 2nd time round, could be as much as 5 years. For a drink driving second offence, you could also be classed as a ‘high risk offender’ if:

  • you were convicted twice for drink driving offences within a 10-year period
  • you were driving with an alcohol reading of at least 87.5 micrograms of alcohol per 100ml of breath, 200 milligrams (mg) of alcohol per 100ml of blood or 267.5mg of alcohol per 100ml of urine
  • you refused to give a sample of either breath, blood and/or urine to test for alcohol
  • you refused to allow a sample of your blood taken when, for example, you were unconscious, to be tested for alcohol.

If you are classed under the rules as a high risk offender, you will not be able to get your new licence until you can prove that you are fit to drive again. This means that you will need to pay for and pass a medical examination with a DVLA-appointed doctor.

What happens once your drink driving ban is up?

If you have been disqualified for drink driving, before you get back behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, you will need to apply for a new licence. You can reapply for your driving licence shortly before your period of disqualification ends, where DVLA will send you a D27 renewal form 56 days before your ban is up. You must complete the form and return this to DVLA to reapply for your licence, although you cannot drive until your ban is fully up.

If you are classed as a high-risk offender, you will first need to take a medical as part of re-applying for your licence, where DVLA should send a D27PH renewal form 90 days before your ban ends. Once in receipt of your application for a new licence, DVLA will send you the doctor’s details so you can make an appointment. During your medical examination you will be asked to complete a questionnaire about your medical history and use of alcohol. You will also be required to undergo a physical examination and have your blood tested.

Having received a drink driving penalty, including a ban, you may also be required to re-take your driving test or take an extended re-test before your licence is returned. When you are sentenced, you should be told whether you will be required to be re-tested.

Drink driving penalties FAQs

[wp-faq-schema accordion=1]

Legal disclaimer

The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.


Gill Laing is a qualified Legal Researcher & Analyst with niche specialisms in Law, Tax, Human Resources, Immigration & Employment Law.

Gill is a Multiple Business Owner and the Managing Director of Prof Services - a Marketing Agency for the Professional Services Sector.

lawble newsletter sign up

Subscribe to our newsletter

Filled with practical insights, news and trends, you can stay informed and be inspired to take your business forward with energy and confidence.