What’s the Difference Between DWI and DUI?

If you’ve ever dealt with a drunk driving issue, you may be asking, what is a DWI vs DUI? Put simply, DWI refers to “driving while intoxicated,” while DUI refers to “driving under the influence” of alcohol or drugs. DWI is considered the more severe offense because, in addition to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, it entails that the amount of substance in the blood has reached a certain level considered to be intoxication by the court. In this regard, the penalties for driving while intoxicated are usually higher. Each state has its own laws related to DUI vs DWI, which vary greatly. Keep reading to understand the difference between DUI and DWI.

Defining DUI and DWI

DUI and DWI are often used interchangeably by those who are unfamiliar with these terms. Both DWI and DUI are criminal offenses in the United States. These terms, however, have different definitions, and the penalties and consequences for a person charged with these offenses are not the same. So, what’s the difference between DWI and DUI?

Understanding of DUI

Driving under the influence is the criminal offense of operating a motor vehicle after consuming alcohol or other drugs that could impair a driver’s ability to drive safely.

Understanding of DWI

Driving while intoxicated is the criminal offense of driving drunk. A person may be charged with a DWI if he or she operates a motor vehicle while intoxicated to the point that the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level is above the legal limit in the respective state. If a driver’s BAC level is above the legal limit, it is not necessary to prove that the driver was completely intoxicated while driving in order to be arrested for DWI.

Drunk and Drugged Driving Laws

The terms “drunk driver” and “drugged driver” are sometimes referred to as being the same offense. However, they are different. In the United States, the rates of drunk driving have dropped over the last several years. Yet the rates of drugged driving continue to increase. 

Drunk driving laws have increasingly become more restrictive and harsh, which appears to have helped reduce the occurrences of drunk driving. Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have also advocated for tougher drunk driving laws for decades. These groups have been instrumental in convincing state legislatures to pass stricter drunk driving laws. 

One example is the blood alcohol limit. Some states initially set the blood alcohol level for drunk driving at 0.15%. Decades later, most states lowered the level to 0.10%, and many others later lowered it to 0.08%. At least one state has now dropped the limit to 0.05%. 

Not only are drugged driving laws more complicated, the offense of drugged driving is also more difficult to prove than drunk driving. There are many types of drugs that can impair a driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, including illicit, prescription, and over-the-counter drugs. Some common  drugs include:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Methamphetamines
  • LSD
  • Heroin
  • Valium
  • Hydrocodone
  • Decongestants
  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Sleeping medications

Even if you have a valid prescription for medication or are taking an over-the-counter medication, you should heed all warning labels. Do not operate a vehicle or machinery until you know the medication will not negatively impact your driving abilities.

DWI vs DUI: State-by-state Differences

Each state has laws regulating what constitutes driving while intoxicated and driving under the influence. The penalties for each offense vary by state.

Currently, the drunk driving BAC level is the same in 49 out of 50 states and is set at 0.08%. In Utah, the BAC level for drunk driving is now 0.05%.

All 50 states have some form of a “zero tolerance” policy for intoxicated minors operating a vehicle and have enacted laws regarding the BAC level for teens and drivers under the age of 21. The BAC level for underage drivers is set at 0.00% in Alaska, Arizona, Illinois, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington D.C. The BAC level for underage drivers is set at 0.01% in New Jersey, and in all other states, the drunk driving BAC level for underage drivers is 0.02%.

Forty-four states have “enhanced penalty” laws that make the drunk driving penalties more severe if a driver’s BAC level is above a designated level. In states with enhanced penalty laws, the designated BAC levels vary, from 0.10% in New Jersey to 0.20% in Idaho, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. Only Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, and Vermont do not have enhanced penalty laws.

All 50 states have an “implied consent” law, which provides that all drivers have given implied consent to have their blood alcohol level tested if they are pulled over under reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence.

Possible Penalties for DUI & DWI

As mentioned above, the penalties for DUI and DWI vary from state to state. In most states, if a driver has a prior drunk or impaired driving offense, the penalties will be greater. Some courts may reduce the penalties for DWI and DUI if a defendant agrees to seek treatment from an approved rehabilitation center; however, not all courts do so.


In most states, the penalty for a first offense DUI or DWI will range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, along with a possible jail sentence of a few days to a few months. Most first-time offenders will also be on probation anywhere from six months to two years. Each state, however, has its own laws regarding penalties for drunk and impaired driving violation. Your state may also have an enhanced penalty provision. Additionally, if you were involved in an accident that injured others or you were charged with additional traffic violations such as public intoxication, your penalty could be much more severe. You should seek the advice of an experienced criminal defense attorney in your town to review your case. Be sure to bring all documents provided to you by the police department upon your release from arrest. Also, be completely honest with your attorney about what happened. All communications between a client and attorney are private, privileged, and confidential.

Second or third-offense

Second and third offenses for DWI or DUI usually carry a much more severe penalty. The penalties can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars and will likely include a jail sentence from several days to several month, or more. Of course, if you are involved in an accident that injures a victim, your penalty will more than likely be significant. In these situations, you should immediately seek an experienced attorney’s assistance in your location.

DUI vs DWI: Which Is Worse?

While the terms are often used to refer to the same offense, in most states, the terms have different meanings. Generally, driving under the influence carries a less severe penalty than driving while intoxicated. When weighing a DWI vs DUI, the DWI is usually considered the more serious charge. However, as the laws in each state are different, you should contact a competent criminal defense attorney in your city to fully understand the crimes charged against you.

Will DUIs and DWIs Impact Your Insurance Rates?

Driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated are criminal offenses that can have serious and long-lasting consequences. One of the most common consequences of being found guilty of a DUI or DWI is a negative impact on insurance rates. It is common for an insurance company to increase insurance premiums if there is a conviction for a DUI or DWI. Some insurance companies will even terminate the insurance coverage. One may also find it more difficult to obtain insurance in the future with a DUI record.

Summing Up

Driving while intoxicated and driving under the influence are both criminal offenses in all 50 states. Driving while intoxicated can be easier to prove than driving under the influence, and it will have more serious penalties. Although the laws relating to DWI and DUI vary from state to state, the current BAC level for drunk driving in 49 states is 0.08%, and in Utah, the level is 0.05%.

The penalties can be harsh, and the consequences of DWI or DUI can be devastating. It is not worth taking the risk of driving while intoxicated or under the influence of any substance that can impair your ability to safely operate a vehicle.

If you find yourself charged with a DUI or DWI, it is critical that you promptly consult an experienced criminal defense attorney who specializes in these cases. You need to fully understand the nature of the charges, the possible penalties you face if convicted, and what your options are for mounting a strong defense.

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Article by Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Legal Writer at Lawrina. Yevheniia browses through the most interesting and relevant news in the legal and legaltech world and collects them on Lawrina’s blog. Also, Yevheniia composes various how-to guides on legaltech, plus writes product articles and release notes for Loio, AI-powered contract review and drafting software.

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