What’s the Difference Between DUI vs DWI?

  • by: Patrick Peterson
  • March 16, 2021
  • Other

You have probably heard both terms used interchangeably, but depending on the state where they occur, there are specific differences between a DUI (driving while under the influence) and a DWI (driving while intoxicated). Regardless of which you are arrested and charged with, you could be facing severe life-altering consequences, especially if your impairment resulted in an accident and someone was injured or killed. 

What is a DUI?

DUI stands for driving under the influence (which could mean alcohol, drugs, or other mind-altering substances, even over-the-counter medicine). The federal law states that anyone driving with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0.08% will be arrested for a DUI. However, states have their own laws and may impose even lower legal limits that qualify for a DWI charge, especially for underage drivers. 

Typically, when you are stopped under suspicion of driving under the influence, the officer will request that you take a Breathalyzer test. You are not legally compelled to do so, but if you don't, they can still arrest you. Some police officers will give you a field sobriety test to ensure you are not a danger to yourself or others and can drive safely. If you are driving erratically, the arresting officer may suspect you of DUI and will do their best to ascertain the truth before arresting you or letting you go. 

What is a DWI?

DWI means driving while impaired or driving while intoxicated, depending on the state where you are driving. In some locations, this could mean you were driving while drunk. In others, it might mean you were impaired by prescription medication or some other substance. 

How Does a DUI Differ from a DWI?

The definition of a DUI vs. DWI differs from state to state. Three U.S. states (Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) also use another acronym OUI or OWI that stands for operating under the influence. This particular distinction may apply to sitting in a running car and not even driving it. 

The entire difference rests with each state and its laws. Some state may refer to DWI as pertaining to alcohol consumption only and a DUI as it relates to drugs. Other states do not make that same distinction. 

It’s essential to know how your specific state classifies DUI vs. DWI so that you will know what to expect if you get into trouble. 

Some states declare a DUI or DWI a misdemeanor, depending on the amount of alcohol or drugs in your system. In other cases, these charges may be felonies, especially if it resulted in someone’s injury or death. 

Federal Laws on DWI vs DUI

There are no federal laws that differentiate between a DWI and a DUI. Therefore, cases where you are arrested, charged, and sentenced will be left up to the state laws.

Which is Worse, a DWI vs DUI?

The question of which is worse depends on the state you were arrested in and how much of the drug or alcohol was in your system (as recorded by a breath test). Courts take unsafe driving very seriously, and the penalties and consequences for driving while intoxicated or impaired are very serious. 


What are the Consequensces of a DWI vs DUI?

It really doesn’t matter what the state law calls it, if you are arrested and charged with a DUI or DWI, you will face very serious consequences. Some things you can expect are

  • License suspension - In most cases, even a first offense will earn you the loss of your driver's license and driving privileges for a few months or even a year. If you have multiple DUIs on your driving record, you may lose it for a period of years or even permanently.
  • Jail - States that take DUIs seriously may impose jail time on you, especially if you were in or caused an accident hurting or killing someone.
  • Insurance - Typically, after a DUI charge, your insurance rates will go up approximately 70%. That’s a significant increase, and some automobile insurance carriers won’t even insure you after a DUI.
  • Probation - If you have more than one DUI, and the court does not sentence you to jail, you may be put on probation for a period of months or years.
  • Car breathalyzer - More states are adopting high-tech ways to keep the roads safe. This includes an ignition interlock device (IID) hooked to the engine of your motor vehicle, and before driving, you must blow into a breathalyzer to check your BAC (blood alcohol concentration) level, or the vehicle will not start. You must also pay for the device, pay to have it installed, to have it removed later, and a monthly monitoring fee for the duration. 
  • Fees to get your license back. - If you lose your license, the state may charge you fees even as high as $3,000 to get your license back after a DUI or DWI.
  • Fines – The courts may also charge you fines. These fines can range from a hundred dollars up to $6,250 as it the case in Oregon. 
  • Community service - Another typical sentence for a DUI/DWI conviction is a certain number of community service hours. This may entail working a local soup kitchen or picking up trash on the state highway. A supervisor will tally and keep track of your hours and let you know when your community service is completed. You then need to prove to the courts through documentation that you completed the sentence. 
  • Drunk school - Many areas require you to attend a rehab or alcohol support program (such as Alcoholics Anonymous) if you are caught under the influence of drugs or under the influence of alcohol while driving. You must also show completion before you can even be eligible to get your license back. Some of these drunk schools last weeks and attendance are mandatory by law. 

A first offense will still come with unpleasant aftermath, but it will be a less serious offense than if you have multiple. A DUI/DWI may stay on your permanent record forever, making it harder for you to apply for insurance, jobs, permits, and generally making your life harder. It is a good idea to consult a defense attorney if you are convicted of more than one DWI offense. DUI attorneys generally offer a free consultation to discuss your DUI case and provide the proper legal advice for putting your life back together. If your incident left someone hurt or dead, you may need a criminal defense lawyer instead. 

State Regulations for DUI vs DWI

A lot of states have instituted zero-tolerance policies for underaged drinkers/drivers. Therefore, if they are caught driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to DWI laws the court may sentence them harshly. The idea is to prevent this behavior from continuing into adulthood. By making them suffer when they are younger may help them avoid further issues down the road.

For a complete list of the drunk driving laws and the corresponding DUI/DWI consequences in all 50 states, visit Nolo to learn more. 

DUI & DWI Statistics 

According to the CDC, every 50 minutes, someone is killed in a DUI/DWI car crash. In the United States, every day, 29 people die from driving under the influence of accidents. Alcohol-related car crashes cost Americans $44 billion per year. Statistics going back to 2016 show that 28% of the car crash fatalities were a result of drunk driving, and 16% were due to drug use and impairment (including prescription medication). Again, from 2016, 1 million drivers were arrested for DUI offenses (only 1% of those were self-reported incidents). These statistics are staggering, which is why state and federal laws are so harsh for those convicted of these crimes. 

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