How driving drunk can wreck your car insurance

Craig Guillot

More than 1.4 million people were arrested in 2009 for drunken driving, according to the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration. If you are arrested for DUI, you'll face a world of problems including legal issues, fines and loss of your driver's license.

You also risk being dropped by your car insurance company and will certainly face higher premiums for at least three years afterward. Attorneys and insurance agents say the effects can vary dramatically for each driver, but they won't be pretty in any case.

Across the country, a DUI stays on a driver’s traffic record for five years but is considered by car insurance companies for only three years.

In some states, the total financial toll of a DUI can add up to $20,000 after factoring in fines, legal fees, loss of income, court costs, bail and a court-required ignition device for your car.

Getting dropped by your insurer

While a driver can't have a car insurance policy canceled for a DUI, most major carriers simply won't renew the policy when it expires. Di Smith, an agent with Gillman Insurance Group in Atlanta, says you’ll then have to switch to a “non-standard” carrier that specializes in high-risk drivers -- and charges higher rates.

“Most major carriers will just drop you. You’ll be able to get new insurance, but you’re going to pay a huge surcharge,” Smith says.

Georgia DWI attorney George Creal Jr. says a single DUI can increase a driver's premiums for basic liability coverage -- the type of coverage mandated in 48 states -- by up to 400 percent. That impact can occur even before a DUI suspect goes to trial; in most states, a motorist’s license is immediately suspended for up to 90 days when he's arrested for DUI.

Creal says that even if a driver isn't convicted of DUI, the drunken driving arrest itself can harm your insurance premiums for years to come. If you take a breath test and go over the legal limit (a blood-alcohol level of 0.08), you’ll have your license suspended for at least 90 days. If you refuse a breath test, you could be hit with a 180-day suspension.

DUI hurts your wallet

Insurers demand higher premiums for drivers in DUI cases because the presence of alcohol in an accident traditionally leads to higher legal expenses. For instance, $20,000 settlement for minor injuries in an accident easily could balloon to $200,000 if alcohol was a factor.

“And if you hurt someone, it’s a felony -- which makes insurance the least of your worries. Kill someone, and you’re likely looking at state prison time,” Creal says.

The consequences of a DUI also include fines and legal fees. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, legal fees can run from $5,000 to $10,000 with fines anywhere from several hundred dollars to $2,000.

If you drive on the job and are nabbed for DUI, you stand a significant chance of being fired. John Marek, a partner with K & S Insurance Agency in Dallas, says commercial insurers automatically exclude such drivers from their policies.

"Rarely would a business be able to insure any driver with a DWI,” Marek says.

To get a new insurance policy when a driver's license is reinstated, most states require a driver with a DUI on his record to obtain an SR-22 or FR-44. This is a document that shows proof of financial responsibility and car insurance; you may have to carry it for up to three years after your arrest.

Other premium factors

Brian Kane, an agent with Donnelly & Sproul Insurance in New Jersey, says the effect of a DWI can vary dramatically based on a driver’s background. Factors such as age, credit score and previous driving history sometimes carry as much weight as the DUI itself. Some drivers who are slapped with DUIs "get unlucky," Kane says, "and may otherwise be a responsible person."

Creal says hiring a lawyer who specializes in DUI cases can help minimize the inevitable rise in a drunken driver's car insurance premiums. You’ll automatically be hit with higher premiums when you’re arrested, he says, but getting the criminal charge reduced to reckless driving can ease the burden -- and possibly your car insurance.

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