DUI vs. DWI: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the differences between DUI vs. DWI can be helpful when looking at how states treat driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances. DWI stands for "driving while intoxicated," or in some cases, "driving while impaired." DUI is an acronym for "driving under the influence."

Both DWI and DUI can apply to alcohol and other drugs (including recreational drugs and those prescribed by a physician) that impair your ability to drive. One is not worse than the other and both can have a big effect on a person's life.

DUI vs. DWI

The terms can have different meanings or they can refer to the same offense, depending on the state where the incident occurs. In any case, DWI and DUI both mean that a driver is being charged with a serious offense that endangered themselves and others.

This article discusses how DWI and DUI vary in terms of state laws as well as how impaired driving is defined in different areas. It also explores the legal consequences of impaired driving including fines, jail time, and court-ordered treatment.

State DWI and DUI Laws

Depending on state law, both terms are used to describe impaired or drunken driving. Some state laws refer to the offense of drunken driving as a DUI while others call it a DWI.

It gets tricky when states use both terms. Quite often, one term will refer to alcohol, while the other term refers to impairment by substances other than alcohol (like prescription or recreational drugs) and the meaning can flip-flop from state to state.

Some states use the term DWI to refer to driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) over the legal limit. In those states, the term DUI is used when the driver is charged with being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Other states use DWI to refer to driving while impaired by drugs, alcohol, or some unknown substance. They use the term DUI to refer to driving under the influence of alcohol. It's best to check the definitions of the state you're in.

OUI and OWI

There are also other acronyms for drunk driving. OUI, or "operating under the influence," is used in some states including Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. OWI is an acronym for "operating while intoxicated," which is used in some jurisdictions.

What Is Impaired Driving?

Any of these charges indicated that the arresting officer has reason to believe the driver is too impaired to continue to drive. Impaired driving is defined as operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or another substance. In the U.S., it is defined as having a blood alcohol content (BAC) equal to or greater than 0.08%.

In some jurisdictions, drivers can be charged with impaired driving (or driving under the influence) even if they are under the 0.08 legal limit. For example, you can fail a field sobriety test and be deemed impaired even if your BAC is less than 0.08.

All states also have zero-tolerance laws that punish people under 21 for driving with any trace of alcohol in their systems. This means that if someone under the age of 21 has a BAC higher than 0.00, they will be charged with a DWI or DUI.

If you appear to be impaired by the arresting officer, but your breathalyzer test shows that you are not under the influence of alcohol, they may suspect the use of drugs that impair your driving ability. This can include prescription and nonprescription medications in addition to illegal drugs.

The officer may then call a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) officer to the scene to perform a series of tests. If the DRE officer's multi-step evaluation process determines that you are indeed under the influence of drugs, you can be charged with DWI or DUI. The specific charge depends on what the state calls the offense.

Taking prescription or nonprescription medications can impair your driving ability. You are at risk of drugged driving charges even when you have not had a sip of alcohol.

Consequences of a DWI Arrest

No matter what the offense is called in your jurisdiction, if you are arrested for impaired driving, you will be facing serious consequences. Consequences can include fees, loss of your license, and court-ordered treatment.

Fines and Fees

If you are convicted of a DWI or DUI, you will be required to pay fines and court fees. These fees vary depending on your jurisdiction. Jail time, probation, and community service are also potential legal consquences.

Suspension or Loss of License

If you are convicted or plead guilty, you will probably lose your driver's license. To get your driver's license back, you will probably have to attend defensive driving classes.

Drug or Alcohol Treatment

In most states, you will probably undergo an evaluation of your drinking or substance use patterns as well. Based on the results of that evaluation, you may have to take part in a drug or alcohol treatment program. That program could range from attending a few support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous to entering a residential treatment facility.

Increased Insurance Costs

When you get your driver's license back, you will likely need SR-22 insurance. This could double or triple your premiums, depending on the laws in your state. On average, you can expect to pay higher premiums for three years.

Ignition Interlock Device

Depending on the state in which you reside, you may also be required to have an ignition interlock device installed on your vehicle, which makes it so you can't start your car unless you use a breathalyzer device and it determines you have not been drinking alcohol. This requires that you pay for the device, its installation, and a monthly monitoring fee.

Jail Time

For a second offense, you may spend some time in jail. It is also likely that you will be placed on probation and be required to perform community service.

The bottom line is that getting arrested for driving under the influence is a time-consuming and very expensive ordeal. It is, however, 100% avoidable.

A Word From Verywell

You can protect your health and safety—as well as that of others—by never driving after drinking any amount of alcohol. Your abilities will be impaired even if your blood alcohol content is below the legal limit.

If you are taking any prescription or illicit drugs, it's best not to get behind the wheel, either. Not all prescription medications impair driving, but it is good to know if your medication may affect your attention or focus or cause drowsiness. The laws are in place to avoid potentially dangerous situations that are far worse than a DUI or DWI conviction.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does a DWI stay on your record?

    A DWI or DUI typically stays on your insurance record for three to five years. Laws vary by state, but a conviction will usually stay on your record for at least five to 10 years. In some states—including Alaska, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont—a DWI or DUI will stay on your record for life.

  • What is aggravated DWI?

    While specific laws vary by state, an aggravated DWI generally means that additional offenses or circumstances exist in addition to the DWI charge. This may include driving with a BAC higher than 0.15%, having open containers in the car, having previous DWI convictions, or causing an accident while driving under the influence.

  • How much does a DWI cost?

    DWI and DUI costs vary by state and may depend on the severity of the offense. Costs can include expenses related to bail, court fees, fines, insurances costs, and the fees to restore driving privileges. Lost wages, attorney fees, alcohol treatment, and interlock ignition devices are also expenses that might be incurred following a DWI. While costs vary, total expenses often range between $3,000 to as high as $10,000.

  • What is a felony DWI?

    Specific charges and requirements vary according to state, but this charge often involves repeated DWI convictions within a certain time period or causing the injury or death of another person while driving under the influence.  

    A felony DWI is a serious crime that can carry heavy penalties. Consequences include longer jail times, more serious fines, and the loss of certain civil rights including the ability to vote, own firearms, and hold public office.

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7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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