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DUI vs. DWI: What’s The Difference?

Michelle Wilson - November 11, 2021

dui vs dwi whats the difference

Distinguishing the difference between a DUI and a DWI isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Federal law doesn’t differentiate between the two offenses due to the lack of nationwide definition on either violation. For states, the definition and punishment connected with the two offenses are different, bringing financial and legal consequences with them. For example, a DUI charge can increase car insurance rates by 71% (approximately $1,099 per year). As the risk re-evaluates over time, this violation can cost $3,297 over a three-year period.

To help you understand the differences between the two, here’s a general breakdown of the individual charges, how they impact you, and the groundwork needed to define either.

What is DUI?

The DUI refers to Driving Under the Influence. This determination bases on the alcohol level in your bloodstream. The ratio calculates as a percentage, with 0.08% being the federal standard for fully licensed adult drivers. This limit may go as low as 0.0% for young drivers and depend on the state for DUI laws. Almost all states have extra penalties for drivers with BAC levels above 0.15%.

The DUI charge stays on your record for 3-5 years if found in public records, impacting your insurance rate for this time. Most insurers will factor the DUI into your rates, increasing the premiums significantly.

What is DWI?

The DWI means Driving While Impaired or Driving While Intoxicated. The charge allows state police departments to charge drivers for substances other than alcohol. These substances may include over-the-counter medications that have been abused, prescription medications with impaired driving abilities, or recreational drugs in the system. Some states will charge a DWI in the same way as a DUI, making them interchangeable.

The DWI is often seen as the more severe between the two charges, particularly in states that distinguish them as two offenses. Most often, first-time offenders will receive a lesser charge (DUI), depending on state laws. The DWI charge infers a driver has abused substances, which occasionally has legal ramifications down the road (depending on where you live). Other penalties relating to drug charges are dependant on the type of substances used (regardless of driving). Likewise, driving while drugged (or impaired) will often carry a one-year driving ban, criminal record, an unlimited fine, and potentially prison time. 

What is the Difference?

A DUI (driving under the influence) charge occurs when someone has alcohol in their bloodstream and gets behind the wheel of a car. Federal guidelines provide a limit of 0.08% BAC (blood alcohol content); some states can pursue a DUI charge with levels of 0.01%, depending on the driver’s age.

In some states, an officer can issue the charge without confirming the BAC via a breathalyzer. This includes instances of erratic driving behavior, field sobriety test, or suspicion of the influence.

Alternatively, a DWI stands for driving while impaired. Some states define a DWI as driving while intoxicated, making the charges interchangeable with DUI and DWI. If the state recognizes the two charges separately, a DWI often refers to drug impairment (recreational or prescription).

An officer can charge a driver with a DWI or DUI after failing a sobriety test, even if the BAC is below the legal limit. In both of these charges, a driver is exhibiting dangerous behavior while driving. The state policies will dictate the impact of the charges (whether they have a zero-tolerance policy that fails to distinguish between the two charges).

Which is Worse, DWI or DUI?

It’s important to remember that the type of charge depends on whether the state in question sees the two as separate offenses. In a state that recognizes both differently, a DWI is often more severe than a DUI. Some states will allow a reduction of charge from a DWI to a DUI if it’s the driver’s first offense and the limit was below 0.08%.

Both violations are considered quite severe and can be difficult to overturn in court. Significant outcomes can occur if a breathalyzer or field sobriety test proves the driver is inebriated behind the wheel. These consequences include losing or suspending a driver’s license, monetary fines, increased car insurance costs, or mandatory community service.

Some states require drivers to install an ignition interlock device on the steering wheel after a DWI or DUI charge. This breathalyzer ensures a driver has a 0.0% BAC in order to start the car. These machines are paid for by the driver and are mandated to inspect monthly. It’s important to note that one singular charge may not cause significant, long-term damage to your reputation, but multiple offenses can prevent travel and immigration into other countries. For example, a US resident with numerous DUI or DWI charges may be barred from entering Canada. Likewise, an individual with a single DUI charge but other criminal convictions is likely denied entrance into the country.

DUI & DWI Statistics

Statistics on the DUI and DWI can quickly overwhelm even the bravest reader, but it highlights the importance of safe driving across the United States. Here are a few shocking statistics regarding DWI and DUI laws within the United States:

  • Thirty people in the USA die every single day in crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. This works out to more than one person every hour, every single day.
  • Approximately 290,000 people were injured in accidents involving drunk drivers in 2020.
  • Marijuana use is increasing, with 13% of all weekend and evening drivers having the drug in their system.
  • Marijuana users were approximately 25% more likely to be involved in a car accident than those without narcotics in their system.
  • Of all fatal vehicle accidents, 25% had BACs of 0.08% or greater.
  • Drivers with a BAC of 0.08% and higher involved in fatal accidents were 4.5 times more likely to have prior convictions for DWI than drivers without alcohol in their system.
  • Roughly 1,000 children die annually due to drunk driving.
  • Drivers are seven times more likely to be involved in a fatality on the roads when their BAC is over 0.10
  • 32-percent of all alcohol-related crashes involve at least one fatality.
  • In 2016, 28% of all fatal crashes involved alcohol.
  • Drugs, other than alcohol, were involved in 16% of all motor vehicle crashes.
  • The cost of alcohol-related crashes totals $44 billion annually
  • Authorities arrested 1,017,808 drivers for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in 2016. These numbers continue to climb.


It’s important to remember that both DUI and DWI charges hold profound implications for drivers. While some states consider these charges interchangeable, other states regulate the DWI charge slightly higher than the DUI. If you happen to receive a DWI charge, always ask to have the charge lowered if it’s your first offense.

Driving with alcohol or drugs in your system can significantly influence your reactionary time behind the wheel. They can impair your vision, cause blurred vision, swerving, poor response time, and falling asleep behind the wheel. Even those with less than the legal 0.08% in their system can still have considerable difficulty driving. Whenever possible, always find a designated driver if you plan on drinking. In an instantaneous world, technology can have cabs or transportation to your home in minutes—giving you no reason to get behind the wheel of a car.

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