DUI vs. DWI: What’s The Difference?

June 23, 2021

Cocktail with keys

What’s the Difference Between DUI and DWI?

DUI and DWI mean essentially the same thing: that a driver is committing a crime by operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs, endangering themselves and others. In many states, DUI and DWI are interchangeable terms, but in the few cases where states do differentiate, the distinction can be confusing. 

The best explanation of the difference between DUI and DWI that we’ve found is this one: a DUI refers to behavior, and DWI refers to blood alcohol content. (Almost every state’s DUI laws define intoxication as a blood-alcohol content level of 0.08.)

DUI vs. DWI Examples

Let’s say a 140-pound woman leaves the bar after having three glasses of wine. She has a high alcohol tolerance, and she considers herself to be perfectly able to drive. She’s almost home when another driver fails to stop at a red light and slams into the back of her car. Fortunately, she’s not hurt, but the police officer who comes to the scene smells wine on her breath and asks her to take a field sobriety test. She recites the alphabet backward and stands on one leg, no problem. A blood-alcohol test, however, reveals that her BAC is just over .09, so she gets a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).

In this case, there’s a distinction between a DUI and a DWI because even though her driving did not appear to be impaired, the blood test proved intoxication.

In our second example, a 170-pound man has three potent cocktails at a friend’s party. As he drives home, a police officer notices that he’s swerving and pulls him over. The man fails the field sobriety test (“Z-Y-X-W-T-U-V-umm…”), but a blood test reveals a BAC of .079 — just under the legal limit. Nevertheless, the officer can charge him with DUI, because he has evidence that his driving behavior is different because of the influence of alcohol.

Law Insider has this to say:

“As a general rule, prosecutors in most states rely much more heavily on DWI charges than on DUI charges, since breathalyzer and blood-alcohol test results provide more concrete scientific evidence than field sobriety test results. But in many states, police may double-charge drivers, once with DUI and once with DWI.” 

State-to-State Differences

In any case, a DUI or DWI is referring to a situation when someone is driving while impaired or under the influence of any substance that affects their ability to drive, but the definitions of these two terms change from state to state. 

Again, many states view the two terms as interchangeable, but for those who do define them differently, a DWI can mean a couple of things: in certain states, a DWI refers to driving while impaired by alcohol, prescription or recreational drugs, and in some states, fatigue, while a DUI in these states would refer to driving under the influence of alcohol. In other states, a DWI refers to driving with a BAC over the legal limit, which is 0.08 in almost every state. (Utah is the exception, with a lower limit of 0.05.)

Since there is a lot of variation in DUI/DWI definitions and laws, the best practice is to look into the current laws for your state. If you’re still having trouble interpreting your state’s laws (it can be confusing!), you might consider reaching out to a local lawyer who will likely be able to answer any questions you have. 

At the end of the day, the important thing to remember is that if you’re ever impaired by anything, whether it be alcohol, recreational or prescription drugs, (or even just being tired) you should never drive. That way you can keep yourself and others safe. 

DWI vs DUI vs OWI vs DWAI…

Woman taking a sobriety test for a DWI

DUI vs DWI aren’t the only possibilities when it comes to impaired driving. We compiled this list of other terms you may need to know:

DWAI: DWAI is “driving while ability impaired,” which means you’re operating a vehicle while your ability to safely drive has been compromised because you’ve consumed alcohol or drugs. In Colorado, for instance, you can be charged with a DWAI if your BAC is .05 — that’s two drinks for a 150-pound person.

OUI and OWI: “Operating under the influence” and “operating while intoxicated” — these mean the same thing as DUI and DWI.

OMVI: Ohio did away with the DWI vs. DUI debate, instead calling everything OMVI: “operating a motor vehicle impaired.”

DWI: Just to make things confusing, DWI means “driving while impaired” in some states. It usually means a police officer believes you to be too impaired to drive, even if your BAC is under 0.8.

Aggravated DUI: If you’re driving drunk with kids in the car, if you’re speeding, if your BAC is 0.15 or higher, or if you drive with a suspended license, the court can charge you with an aggravated DUI, which carries higher penalties.

Felony DUI: Forty-six states have felony DUI laws, according to MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), which means a court can charge a driver with a felony for a second, third, fourth or fifth offense, depending on the state. If you hurt or kill someone while driving drunk, that too may result in a felony DUI.

DUI vs DWI: Which is Worse?

In the states where a DWI indicates a BAC of 0.08 or higher, DWI is often the more serious offense compared to a DUI. A DUI is usually a lesser charge, when a driver is impaired but has a BAC below .08. However, every state has its own quirks in the DUI vs DWI laws. For instance, in Maryland, DUI is more serious than DWI, but DWI stands for “driving while impaired”, rather than the more commonly known “driving while intoxicated.”

In most states, the penalties for DUI and DWI are the same. A first offense, with no injuries, deaths or aggravating circumstances, is typically a misdemeanor. 

It’s still a serious crime, however. You could pay thousands in fines, penalties, court costs, and impoundment fees, plus a hefty fee for a DUI lawyer. Your license will probably be suspended, and you may even spend time in jail. And if all that wasn’t enough, your car insurance premiums will skyrocket (some companies may not even offer you a policy at all), and it will remain high for years.

Drunk vs. Drugged Driving Laws

It’s important to remember that you can get a DUI from any substance that impairs your ability to drive, and that includes marijuana, even in states where it’s legalized or decriminalized. However, drugged driving laws are a bit more complicated due to a lack of consistency nationwide as well as some logistical challenges that come with detecting marijuana in drivers. 

With drunk drivers, police have highly effective techniques for detecting the influence of alcohol, but marijuana is a different story. One study found that only 30% of high drivers fail behavioral tests that work well for identifying alcohol-impaired drivers, like walking in a straight line heel-to-toe. On top of that, your body processes marijuana differently than alcohol, making it harder to reliably test. 

So how is drugged driving dealt with in the eyes of the law? The short answer is that every state handles it differently. Some states have something called a “per se law” that prohibits driving with a detectable amount of THC that is past the legal limit, while others have DUID (Driving Under the Influence of Drugs) laws that require the driver to be under the influence of, or affected by, THC in order to get a citation. 

To find out more about your state’s drugged driving laws, check out this map

What are the Consequences of DUIs and DWIs?

Police at a DUI checkpoint

The specific consequences of a DUI or DWI can vary a lot depending on what state you’re in, what your BAC was, and whether or not this was your first offense, but if you receive a DUI or DWI conviction, you’ll face some combination of license suspension, fines and fees, and jail time. 

In almost all cases, your driver’s license will be suspended, anywhere from 3 months to a year for your first offense. Even after you get your license back, a DUI will stay on your driving record for 3 to 5 years in most states, and even as long as 10 years in California

One thing you may not realize about DUIs and DWIs is how expensive they are! Between court-ordered DUI and DWI fines and the possible need to pay attorney fees, you’ll be looking at a hefty price tag. 

For first time convictions, DUI and DWI fines can range from about $500 to $2000, and one survey found that people spend $1,900 on average for an attorney. On top of these expenses, you’re also likely to face the costs of towing your car, finding alternate transportation while your license is suspended, and possibly paying for driver’s safety or alcohol education. 

All those expenses quickly become a significant financial burden, adding just one more item to the laundry list of reasons why you should never drive under the influence. 

The third consequence to keep in mind might be the most intimidating is jail time. For a first time DUI/DWI conviction, most states have a minimum jail time ranging from just a few days and up to 6 months, but a second conviction will likely land you with a much longer sentence. If you want to know more about your state’s minimum jail sentence, fines and fees, and minimum license suspension, this table is a great resource. 

How Does a DUI or DWI Affect Car Insurance?

One of the most important factors for determining car insurance rates is your driving history, and it goes without saying that a DUI or DWI are less than ideal to have on your driving record. In fact, some insurers will even cancel your policy after a DUI, and at minimum, your rates are likely to skyrocket. In most states, you can expect a 30-60% increase. This is because after you get a DUI or DWI, your insurer will see you as a higher risk, making it more expensive to keep you insured. 

Sometimes when you’re convicted of a DUI or DWI, your DMV will require you to file something called an SR-22 form. This “certificate of financial responsibility” allows you to keep your driving privileges by indicating that your car insurance coverage meets the requirements set by your state’s DMV. An SR-22 itself is not a car insurance policy, but instead it is proof that you meet the coverage requirements as a high-risk driver. If you need to find SR-22 insurance, Compare can help you find the lowest rate possible.

We know this is all pretty complicated. Here’s a tip: If you never drive drunk, you won’t have to worry about the difference between DUI and DWI! Not even a personal breathalyzer can help guarantee you’re good to drive, so use an Uber or Lyft if you’re not 100% sober to make sure you never learn the difference the hard way.

And if you have made the mistake of driving under the influence in the past, your life isn’t over. If your car insurance company has dropped you, there are still companies out there who can offer you affordable coverage. If you need to find cheap car insurance after a DUI, simply enter your ZIP code below and compare rates from multiple companies who are specifically tailored to insure drivers with DUI charges and other convictions.

DUI vs DWI FAQs

Are DWI and DUI the same thing?

The primary difference between a DWI and a DUI is that a DWI is usually based on a BAC test, while a DUI can be caused by impaired driving behavior, regardless of BAC. 

Is a DWI more serious than a DUI?

Both offenses are very serious and have similar consequences, but a DWI is sometimes taken more seriously since it is based on a BAC test, which is viewed as scientific, unbiased evidence.

How is a DUI measured?

A driver’s impairment can be tested in many ways, including behavioral tests like heel-toe walking or reciting the alphabet backward, or drivers may be given a breathalyzer or blood test to assess their BAC. In most states, 0.08% BAC is the legal limit.

What is the fine for a DUI or DWI?

The fine for a DUI/DWI changes from state to state and depending on the circumstances, but in California, for instance, you would face a fine of $1,800 after your first conviction.

What state has the toughest DUI/DWI penalties?

Arizona is the toughest state for DUI offenses. It was the first state to require IID (ignition interlock device) installation from your first conviction, and it requires attendance in a drug and alcohol education program, along with expensive fees and several other requirements- all from the first offense. 

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