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DUI vs. DWI: What’s the Difference?

man getting arrested for dui vs dwi

There’s no federal laws or nationwide definition of what the offense of drunk driving constitutes. The only law ever passed regarding drunk driving was the blood alcohol content limit of 0.08. Because of this, it’s up to the states to set their own restrictions and laws regarding what we have come to known as DUIs, DWIs, and several other legal labels.

Before we get into the difference between a DUI and a DWI, it’s pertinent to understand what makes them similar. Because in some states, they actually are the same thing. A DUI (driving under the influence) and a DWI (driving while intoxicated) can both refer to the same offense wherein someone was found under the influence of alcohol or other drugs behind the wheel.

Driving while impaired is a serious crime with serious endangerment to the driver and others. A driver can be charged with drunk driving if their BAC exceeds the federal limit in an average situation. The states’ laws ultimately decide the laws, definitions, term usage, and penalties for driving under the influence. Regardless of state, a DUI or DWI can be costly on your financial, personal, and legal life.

So, what’s the difference between a DUI and DWI?

We know that both DUI and DWI refer to offenses where a driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol. Most states label these offenses like DUIs, while there are some that use DWI.

Today, DUI has become synonymous with drunk driving and alcohol. If your BAC is found to be over the legal limit, then it’s a DUI that you’ll be charged with. States will often use DWI to identify specific cases of drug intoxication that isn’t just alcohol. These other possible substances would include illegal and prescription drugs that could impair driving or operating heavy machinery. This is what’s known as drugged driving which can be caused by any of the aforementioned drugs.

Again, whether or not the violation will be marked down as a DUI or DWI is dependent on the state laws.

There are more terms than just DUI and DWI?

It’s true. There’s a lot of different names for driving under the influence offenses. Not to mention that there are 50 states, hence 50 different methods of handling DUI crimes. The state laws can penalize you based on the severity of the incident and whether or not it’s your first offense. Here’s a handy list of terms different states are known to use;

  • DUI. Driving under the influence. The broadest definition of driving intoxicated or drunk driving. At this point, we’re familiar with it.
  • DWI. Driving while intoxicated or impaired. This term can be especially different from state to state. Some states would incorporate a DWI when a driver is found with a BAC over the limit, customarily marked as a DUI. To make it less tricky, think about DWI as driving while under the influence of prescription, non-prescription, or illegal drugs.
  • OUI. Operating under the influence. This term is used only in Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to describe offenses where someone was operating heavy machinery while intoxicated. The machinery doesn’t necessarily have to be a car.
  • OWI. Operating while intoxicated. An OWI is the same thing as an OUI, just worded differently. Few states use this term in the case of a DUI. LIke OUI, the machinery being operated can range from vehicle to equipment used in construction and engineering.
  • DWAI. Driving while under alcohol influence is a term used in New York to describe a less severe version of a DWI wherein the driver’s BAC was between 0.05 and 0.07. Colorado uses a DWAI in the event of an intoxicated driver on account of recreational cannabis.

It seems like every state handles and defines a DUI differently. What are some examples?

While the federal limit is 0.08, some states will set their own BAC limits or operate through a zero-tolerance law. State laws against drunk driving may also take the number of offenses or age of the driver into consideration in some jurisdictions. Here’s a couple of ways that states have uniquely cracked down on impaired driving:

  • Zero tolerance. States with zero-tolerance laws against minors consuming alcohol and then driving. If they test positive for the smallest bit of alcohol, then they are given a DUI (DWI in Texas) just as an adult would. States with this law include Texas, Illinois, California, D.C, Minnesota, New York, and Alaska.
  • Jailtime for first-time offenders. When a driver is charged with their first DUI, then the penalties tend to be license suspension, probation, or installation of an ignition interlock device. Some states like Arizona, Tennessee, and Georgia are known to sentence first-time offenders to jail time.
  • Offenders under 21. In contrast to states with zero tolerance, Maryland and Arkansas may issue a special DUI or DWI to impaired drivers under the age of 21 found with alcohol in their system.
  • Unique rankings in addition to DUI. North Carolina has a unique severity ranking ranging from 1 to 5 when writing up a DUI offense. The lower the ranking, the more severe the DUI is. Similarly, Georgia will designate an impaired driver with DUI per se or DUI-less-safe. A DUI-less safe would be issued to a driver with a BAC between 0.02 and 0.07 while a DUI per se would be issued to drivers with a BAC of 0.08 or above.

Outside of the legal area, How can a DUI affect your car insurance?

A DUI or DWI can result in some consequences to your auto insurance that won’t be cheap. Your insurance company can do anything from raising your rates to opting not to renew your policy. In that case, you would have to file proof of financial responsibility with the department of motor vehicles.

It is illegal to continue driving uninsured, and that’s a matter that can be covered by getting quotes from the best high-risk insurance companies.

If my insurance is affected by a DUI, what would my rates look like?

As previously mentioned, your premiums may go up a little more than $1000 a year. Because a DUI can stay on your record from 3 to 5 years (10 in California), you’ll have to pay those rates for the years to come. Insurance companies process a DUI in different ways judging by the time they were reported and how severe the incident was.

Which one is worse? A DUI or a DWI?

As with most aspects of impaired driving law we’ve been discussing, it’s dependent on the state how bad an issued DUI or DWI would be. A DWI would typically be worse because the driver could have been impaired by something far worse than alcohol. States such as California typically use the label this way. A DWI would be an equally worse violation for other states where they don’t use DWIs like Illinois. In some states, there may not be a DUI vs. DWI.

Here’s the truth about drinking and driving.

The legal, economic, and insurance implications of impaired driving are as severe as they are because DUI incidents are a regular occurrence. It’s estimated that every minute there is a death due to an impaired driver. The damage caused is estimated to be at least 40 billion dollars a year, with over 1 million arrests that same year. The best practice to avoid consequences like this is to simply not get behind the wheel while impaired. A DUI is an avoidable and preventable offense.