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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. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a felony DWI?
Felonies are considered major crimes. A felony DWI is a serious criminal offense that can have heavy penalties, including lengthy jail sentences, larger fines, and losing certain personal civil rights, such as the right to vote, the ability to own a gun, and more. The laws regarding felony DWIs vary from state to state but usually involve repeated DWI convictions or incidents causing serious injury or death to another during the act of drunk driving.
Do I need an attorney to represent me for a first offense DWI or DUI?
A first-offense DWI charge or DUI charge is still considered a serious offense. In these situations, it is strongly recommended you hire an experienced attorney to represent you and help build the strongest defense possible. Even if you don’t believe you require an attorney, it is important you understand the charges and evidence against you, how you can be prosecuted, and what legal defenses you may have against the charges. At a minimum, you should obtain a professional legal evaluation of your case. Many attorneys offer a free initial consultation for potential new clients. Go to to locate a DUI & DWI attorney by state.
Can I be arrested for DUI if I am not legally intoxicated?
Yes. You do not necessarily need to have a blood alcohol level above the legal limit to be charged with a DUI or a DWI. If you have a BAC level above the legal limit, you are presumed to be guilty of a DWI. However, you can still be found guilty of a DUI without having a BAC that exceeds the legal limit.
What is the cost of a DWI charge?
There is no clear-cut answer, considering the various factors that may be involved in defending a DWI charge. These include attorney’s fees, fines, court costs, alcohol education program costs, probation fees, relicensing costs, lost wages, increase in insurance rates or lost coverage, and so on. But keep in mind, the cost to your family life, reputation, ability to qualify for a loan or job, and possible jail sentence is even higher. Finally, driving while intoxicated could cost you or someone else his or her life. Drunk or drugged driving is never worth the risk. The consequences can be deadly.
What should I do if I’ve been charged with a DUI?
If you have been charged with a DUI or DWI, take the following steps: Immediately consult a criminal defense attorney to evaluate your case. Be sure to ask questions to fully understand the charges against you. With your attorney, determine whether you have legal defenses to the charges. Give your attorney copies of all documents you received from the arresting officer. Be completely honest with your attorney. Attend all court appearances and be punctual. If you are ordered to pay a fine or take a specific action, do so timely without any delay.
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