The Difference Between DUI and DWI, and Meanings


If you are stopped by police and suspected of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, the charge may be DUI or DWI, depending on your location. Some states make a legal difference between DUI and DWI while others do not. It is essential to be aware of these regional variations in the classification of DWI vs DUI to understand the specific implications and potential consequences associated with the charge you might receive.

Difference Between DUI And DWI

In general, the key difference between DWI and DUI lies in the level of impairment. DWI, which stands for Driving While Intoxicated, signifies a higher degree of intoxication compared to DUI, which refers to Driving Under the Influence. States almost uniformly use the DUI acronym to describe driving under the influence of alcohol, but other substances may be covered by the same term. Generally, a DWI is considered more serious as it signals high-level intoxication, and the associated penalties are typically harsher. The contrast between DWI vs DUI underscores the varying degrees of impairment and the corresponding legal consequences based on the severity of the offense.

The Severity of a DWI

As we said before, DWI is more serious than DUI. Individual states may have their own DWI statutes and limits for the intoxicated operation of a vehicle. In addition, “operating” may be defined broadly: rather than specifically limited to being behind the wheel of a moving vehicle, an operator may be anyone with the ability and/or intent to drive, including those who are passed out behind the wheel of a parked vehicle, or those in possession of keys to a vehicle. Understanding the nuances of DWI vs DUI is essential for individuals facing charges related to impaired driving.

Most state DUI, OUI, and DUID laws include the principle of implied consent that allows law enforcement to test a driver suspected of impaired operation through field sobriety testing as well as chemical (blood or breath) testing. Most state laws require an automatic license suspension for those who refuse a field sobriety test. In certain situations, individuals may explore the option of a license plate lookup for gathering information related to a DUI incident. 

The Impact of a First-Offense DUI

Although many first-time DUI offenses are misdemeanors (class B or above), individuals charged with such can expect their auto insurance to increase significantly for at least three years, with subsequent offenses increasing one’s insurance rate for as many as seven years. In addition, a DUI conviction may disqualify a person for certain types of employment that require operating vehicles or equipment owned by the employer. Understanding the distinctions between DWI vs DUI is crucial in navigating the legal and practical consequences of such charges.

DUI Meaning

Driving Under the Influence is legally defined as a person operating a motor vehicle over the age of 21 having .08 percent blood alcohol content when tested by a Breathalyzer or similar device. For most people that’s the equivalent of one alcoholic drink (one shot of distilled spirits, one 12 oz. beer, or 6 oz. of wine) per hour. The federal government standardized this measurement of blood alcohol content (BAC) in 2013 by making states adopt it to qualify for federal highway funds. Understanding the legal distinctions between DWI vs DUI and the associated blood alcohol content limits is crucial for drivers to adhere to road safety regulations.

Drivers under age 21 (the legal drinking age across the U.S.) may be considered impaired if their blood alcohol level is discernible at any level. Commercial drivers (trucks, taxis, etc.) are allowed only a .04 percent blood alcohol level before being considered impaired.

Imposing DUI laws has significantly reduced traffic deaths related to drunk and drugged driving. In the 1990s, police arrested about 1.5 million people a year for drunk driving or about 1 in 10 arrests. Around that time nearly 20,000 Americans annually died in auto accidents resulting from drunk driving. That number has been reduced by at least half in recent years, due in part to tougher laws.

Difference Between DUI And DWI

What is a DWI?

So what is a DWI? Seventeen states have created statutes regarding driving under the influence of drugs, which may be referred to as DWI DUID, or another acronym. These include Arizona, Delaware, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada,  Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin. This requires developing field testing protocols and specific laws that name debilitating substances that are banned for drivers. Such laws are generally one of three types:

  • the drug ingested must render the driver incapable of safe operation of a motor vehicle (the standard used in-laws in 14 states);
  • the drug must impair the driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, or
  • “zero tolerance” laws that make it illegal to operate a motor vehicle with certain intoxicating substances in the driver’s system

Despite the existence of such laws states have been criticized for a lack of uniformity and application of drugged driving statutes. National surveys have shown that the youngest, least experienced drivers are those most likely to drive under the influence of drugs.

The legalization of marijuana use in many states has created a legal conundrum for law enforcement, which struggles to measure or define drugged driving. In a “roadside survey” undertaken by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2014, some 20 percent of drivers tested positive for drug use, specifically marijuana. Some legal prescription drugs can be difficult for police to detect yet may produce the same sort of driver impairment as heavy alcohol or drug ingestion. Combinations of drugs may also create unexpected side effects that make driving dangerous.

State-by-State Breakdown

States may create their standards over and above the federal .08 percent blood alcohol level. For instance:

  • Colorado considers a blood alcohol content of 0.15 percent, lower than the .08 percent standard, to be impaired driving and starts to penalize people at that level;
  • Penalties for DUI under Florida law are increased significantly if a minor is in the vehicle;
  • Texas law forbids drug addicts from receiving driver’s licenses;
  • California’s DUI law requires some movement of the motor vehicle involved while other states may not;
  • Arizona, Tennessee, and Georgia have mandatory jail time for first-time DUI offenders, and
  • more than a dozen states have “enhanced DUI” laws that correspond with blood alcohol levels above the federally mandated .08 percent.

At least six states require doctors to report patients who drive while intoxicated. Similarly, there are laws requiring doctors to report people who have health issues that may impair their driving, including dementia, seizures, and conditions that require certain drugs that hinder awareness, consciousness, or reflexes.

Jail Possibility for a First-Time DUI

Penalties for DUI can be harsh to discourage drinking or drug use combined with driving. Arizona has what is considered to be the toughest penalties, including a minimum 24-hour jail term, 90-day license suspension, and the requirement of an interlock ignition device for a person’s first offense. Subsequent offenses involve a 30-day jail term and a minimum $500 fine.

In Montana state that the Centers for Disease Control identified as having a relatively high percentage of habitual drunk drivers, those with two or more DUI convictions may be forced by a judge to forfeit their vehicles, which means the automobile can be taken by police and sold at auction. Even a first-time offender in Montana may get their license suspended for up to six months and are likely to be required to complete substance abuse evaluation and treatment.


In summary, the distinction between DWI and DUI reveals significant differences in alcohol-related driving offenses. Recognizing the severity of a DWI and understanding the consequences of a first-offense DUI are crucial. The nuanced meanings of DWI vs DUI, along with state-specific regulations, provide essential insights. Notably, the potential for jail time with a first-time DUI emphasizes the importance of understanding these differences and staying informed about jurisdiction-specific implications. This understanding empowers individuals to navigate the legal consequences of impaired driving more effectively.


How Long Does a DWI Stay on Your Driving Record?

The duration a DWI stays on your driving record can vary by state. In general, it typically ranges from five to ten years, but some states may keep it on record for a longer period. It's crucial to check the specific regulations in your state to understand how long a DWI conviction will impact your driving record.

How Long Does a DUI Stay on Your Record?

Similar to a DWI, the duration a DUI stays on your record depends on the state laws. Typically, DUI convictions remain on your driving record for a specified period, ranging from a few years to a decade or more. It's essential to check your state's regulations to determine the exact timeframe and any potential consequences associated with a DUI on your record.

What Happens When You Get a DUI?

When you get a DUI, the consequences can be significant. They may include fines, license suspension, mandatory alcohol education programs, and in some cases, even imprisonment. The specific penalties vary by jurisdiction and may also depend on whether it's a first-time offense or a repeat occurrence. Seeking legal advice and understanding the local laws is crucial in navigating the aftermath of a DUI.

Where Are The DUI Checkpoints Tonight?

Information about DUI checkpoints is typically not publicly disclosed in advance due to legal and safety considerations. Law enforcement agencies conduct DUI checkpoints at various locations based on statistical data and other factors. It's important to prioritize responsible and sober driving at all times to avoid legal consequences. If you suspect there may be a checkpoint, it's advisable to plan an alternative route or use designated drivers or rideshare services.