‘Look-Back’ Periods

Definition: The length of time offenses remain on a driver’s record (often called a ‘look-back period’) is a key issue in identifying hardcore alcohol-impaired drivers.

Executive Summary: Extended look-back periods enable prosecutors, judges, and licensing authorities to identify DUI recidivists who qualify for mandatory enhanced penalties and driver license sanctions upon subsequent conviction. They enable judges and prosecutors to identify DUI offenders who carry a higher risk of future DUI arrests as well as a higher risk of involvement in fatal crashes.

More Detail: While laws exist to provide for the imposition of more stringent sanctions for each conviction of DUI or DUI-related offense, many offenders may receive a lessor sentence because the sentencing judge or the prosecutor simply did not know the criminal history of the accused. Law enforcement, prosecutors and judges should be advised of the importance of working together to remedy this problem and to help obtain funding for the establishment of an integrated record keeping system regarding DUIs.

There is a wide disparity between states regarding the period of time prosecutors, judges or administrators may consider in reviewing an offender’s records. Although no perfect solution exists, perhaps one of the fairest ones is establishing a system in which the ‘look-back’ period is proportionally extended for each DUI conviction that a driver records. Such a system would help ensure the records of each driver are reasonably available while attempting to differentiate between unique offenders and hardcore recidivists. It would also take into account the driver’s ability to reestablish a clean record. These systems may include: standardizing records across jurisdictions, facilitating access to them, and streamlining the ease of use of current records among agencies and jurisdictions. Automated record-keeping systems can also help overcome many of these issues.

This issue can be more of a problem in locations where state borders are regularly crossed for work purposes. In the smaller states of New England, for example, people may live in one state and work in another. Therefore, laws should be reasonable and appropriately determined and executed for the situation.

Of particular importance is recommending that police, prosecutors, and judges urge their state legislative leaders to work with their counterparts in other states to fund and implement a national record registry for DUIs and other serious traffic offenses. Given the mobility of the American people, such an interstate system is crucial to effective enforcement of state DUI laws.

Extended look-back periods have been adopted by a majority of States following enactment of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) Restoration Act (1998-2003), which provided, in Section 164, that States would be subject to a transfer of funds if they did not apply certain minimum sanctions to offenders convicted more than once within a five-year period. To comply, states must have the ability to ‘look back’ five (or more) years to determine whether enhanced sanctions should be applied. States that provide for a shorter period of time run a risk of treating repeat offenders as first-time offenders, possibly leading to inappropriate and ineffective sanctions and treatment.

A 2014 NHTSA study of 40 states found that about one quarter of all drivers arrested for DUI each year are repeat DUI offenders. Between 2007 and 2011, the proportion ranged from 11%-41% and the median was around 25%. The look-back period analysis provided evidence that shorter look-back periods result in lower DWI recidivism prevalence.

In all criminal matters, a delicate balance must be found between appropriate sentencing and protecting the rights of the convicted driver. Appreciating this fundamental tug-of-war is especially important for the issue of records because an overly extensive ‘look-back period’ can turn a single poor decision into a lasting black mark on the driver’s record. Since the ‘look-back period’ is defined in statute, the criminal justice system should ask the legislature to establish periods that can serve as appropriate windows to identify repeat impaired  drivers while still avoiding unnecessarily severe consequences.


Suggested Audience: Prosecutors, Judges


Additional Resources:

  • The Century Council. DUI Data – Insufficient Look-Back Periods
  • NHTSA – A Study of Outstanding Warrants
  • Use of Driver and Criminal Records for Judges and Prosecutors. Barbara Hilger Delucia, Robert A. Scopatz, Mark L. Edwards Transportation Research Record. Volume 1581, 1997.
  • “DWI recidivism in the United States: an examination of state-level driver data and the effect of look-back periods on recidivism prevalence,” DOT HS 811 991. Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2014).