DUI vs. DWI: What's the Difference?

DUI is an acronym for "driving under the influence." DWI stands for "driving while intoxicated," or in some cases, "driving while impaired." The terms can have different meanings or they can refer to the same offense, depending on the state in which you were pulled over. 

In any case, DUI and DWI both mean that a driver is being charged with a serious offense that endangered themselves and others. That applies 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 your life.

State-to-State Differences

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 only three states: Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. OWI is an acronym for "operating while intoxicated," which is used in some jurisdictions.

The "operating" distinction encompasses more than just driving the vehicle. Even if the vehicle is stopped and not running, someone can be charged with operating under the influence.

Other Factors in Impaired Driving

Any of these charges mean the arresting officer has reason to believe the driver is too impaired to continue to drive. In some jurisdictions, drivers can be charged with impaired driving (or driving under the influence) even if they blow under the 0.08 legal limit.

For example, you can fail a field sobriety test and be deemed impaired even if you're 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 blows a BAC higher than 0.00, they will be charged with a DWI or DUI.

Drugged Driving Is Impaired Driving

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 charge depends on what the state calls the offense of drugged driving.

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.

Arrest and Consequences

No matter what the offense is called in your jurisdiction, if you are arrested for impaired driving, you will be facing serious consequences. If you are convicted or plead guilty, you will probably lose your driver's license and pay fines and court fees.

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. To get your driver's license back, you will probably have to attend defensive driving classes.

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.

After a Conviction

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.

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 blow into the 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.

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.

Just don't get behind the wheel while you are drinking or taking any type of drug. This includes any prescription medications that warn about impaired driving or any that may affect your attention or focus or cause drowsiness.

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. The laws are in place to avoid potentially dangerous situations that are far worse than a DUI or DWI conviction.

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Article 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.
  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A State-by-State Analysis of Laws Dealing With Driving Under the Influence of Drugs. 2009.

  2. National District Attorneys Association. The Drug Evaluation and Classification (DEC) Program, Saving Lives and Preventing Crashes. 2018.

  3. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drunk Driving. 2017.

Additional Reading
  • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drunk Driving. 2017.