The difference between DWI and DUI isn't always straightforward. Federal laws don't distinguish between the two offenses, as there isn't a nationwide definition of either violation. In fact, many states define and punish DUI and DWI offenses differently, and the two violations often refer to similar-but-separate driving behaviors. DUIs and DWIs often come with financial and legal consequences, in both private and public sectors.
The below breakdown lays the groundwork to define DUI and DWI broadly — for actionable advice, seek out a legal professional.
DWI vs. DUI
DUI stands for Driving Under the Influence. A DUI offense occurs when someone drives with alcohol in their bloodstream. While the federal legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit is 0.08%, some states may pursue DUI charges at BAC levels of 0.01%, depending on the driver's age. In some states, a DUI can be issued without the officer checking BAC via breathalyzer. In some cases, a DUI can be charged based on erratic driving behavior, the suspicion of the influence of alcohol, or a field sobriety test.
DWI means Driving While Impaired. Some states define a DWI as Driving While Intoxicated — in those instances, there is no difference between a DUI and DWI charge. In those states that do recognize them as separate charges, DWI generally refers to driving while impaired by drugs — either prescribed or recreational.
Each of these charges means the driver was exhibiting dangerous behavior while behind the wheel of a car. A driver can be charged with a DUI or DWI after failing a field sobriety test, even with a BAC below the state's legal limit. The location of the offense has a major impact on the legal outcome, as states with zero-tolerance policies may not differentiate between DUI and DWI violations.
Which is worse: DUI or DWI?
In a state that recognizes DUI and DWI as separate offenses, a DWI is usually the more serious charge, while a DUI is considered a lesser degree of impairment. Some states offer the opportunity to reduce a charge from a DWI to a DUI if it's a driver's first drug- or alcohol-related offense, and their BAC was below 0.08%. Each of these violations is serious, and difficult to overturn if the officer had reason to pull the driver over — or if a breathalyzer or field sobriety test proves inebriation.
Will a DUI or DWI raise insurance rates?
One — or more — of the below consequences occurs after a DUI or DWI offense:
- Loss or temporary suspension of license.
- Mandated community service.
- Monetary fine.
- Increased car insurance costs — or loss of coverage.
After a DUI or DWI, the driver is sometimes required to install an ignition interlock device on the steering wheel of their car. This built-in breathalyzer ensures the driver has a 0.0% BAC in order to start the car.
Based on The Zebra's database of insurance rate data, the most affordable car insurance company after a DUI is Liberty Mutual. In order to apply for a new car insurance policy after a DUI, the offender may need to submit a SR-22 through his or her local DMV. An SR-22 is proof of insurance coverage, usually filed by an insurer on behalf of a driver (usually for a fee). If the insurance company does not submit an SR-22, the driver may be responsible for furnishing it.
DUI statistics in the US
The legal and financial consequences of being charged with a DUI or DWI are severe, for good reason. In 2016, the NHTSA reported a death every 50 minutes due to drunk driving. The statistics are hard to overlook:
- 1,017,808 drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics.
- 32% of all alcohol-impaired crashes result in a death.
- Drivers aged 25 to 34 were involved in the highest number of alcohol-impaired fatal crashes from 2007 to 2016.
- 28% of all fatal accidents involved alcohol in 2016.
- For every 100,000 Americans under the age of 21, 1.2 people were killed in drunk driving fatalities in 2016.
- The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes totals more than $44 billion.
- Drugs other than alcohol — legal and illegal — are involved in about 16% of motor vehicle crashes.
DUI/DWI laws by state
- North Carolina
- New York
DUI vs. DWI: Texas
Texas is a zero-tolerance state. Only minors under the age of 21 can be charged with the less-serious DUI offense. If a minor is found driving with any alcohol in their system, they can be charged — even if it’s below the federal legal limit.
For those over 21, being charged with a DWI carries much more serious consequences. As part of the Texas Penal Code, all that is required to be charged with a DWI is a BAC over 0.08% or visibly driving while impaired.
DUI vs. DWI: Minnesota
In Minnesota, DWI, DUI, and drunk driving all refer to the same charge. All these terms refer to the act of driving while impaired, either that be under alcohol, prescribed or hazardous substances. However, your BAC must be above the legal limit to result in a charge, while any amount of substance in your system qualifies to be charged.
If you refuse a BAC test or breathalyzer on site, then you can be further charged with criminal and Minnesota DPS administrative penalties.
DUI vs. DWI: North Carolina
There is only the one charge in North Carolina: DWI. However, within that specific charge, North Carolina assigns multiple levels of severity, ranging from Aggravated 1 (most severe) to Level 5 (least severe). These offenses will stay on your record permanently, unless you legally expunge them.
Under North Carolina law, the car does not have to be in motion for the driver to be charged with a DUI. In North Carolina, a driver can pass a breathalyzer test but can still be charged if the arresting officer witnesses behavior indicating intoxication.
DUI vs. DWI: Maryland
There’s a notable difference between DWI vs. DUI charges in Maryland, primarily having to do with the age of the driver. A DWI is only given to minors under the age of 21, and a DUI is for older drivers. However, all ages can receive a “wet reckless” charge which is a conviction of reckless driving involving alcohol, but generally this is a result of a lowering of a DUI charge.
DUI vs. DWI: Illinois
The state of Illinois is unique because the state government only recognizes DUI, a “driving under the influence” charge. In Illinois, there is no such thing as a DWI — driving while intoxicated, or driving while impaired. This especially applies to minors: Illinois is a zero-tolerance state. If someone under than the age of 21 is caught driving with any alcohol in their system, they will be arrested for DUI. Consequences for getting a DUI in Illinois include driver's license revocation.
DUI vs. DWI: New York
New York has some unique laws related to drinking and driving. The Empire State's two “drunk driving” charges are DWI and DWAI. DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated,” while DWAI stands for “driving while ability impaired.” A DWAI specifically refers to to the substance impairing the driver and furthermore, a DWAI means that the driver’s BAC is between 0.05% and 0.07%, or it’s not obvious the driver is impaired. Because of this, a DWAI is typically a less severe charge than a DWI. Both a DWI and DWAI are criminal charges and can result in jail time, fines, or even license revocation.
DUI vs. DWI: California
California is a zero-tolerance state for minors. It also is one of many states with implied consent laws. Simply put, if you have an active driver’s license, you are subject to a BAC test if the arresting officer suspects impairment. If you test above the legal limit, you will be charged with a DUI, which can stay on your record for up to 10 years. If you are found to be under the influence of drugs while operating a vehicle, then you can be charged with a DWI.
DUI vs. DWI: Virginia
Another state with no legal difference between DUI and DWI, Virginia uses both charges interchangeably. However, in court proceedings, an individual charged with a DWI generally will be considered to have had a BAC above the legal limit at the time of the arrest. In Virginia, drivers can be charged even if the vehicle is not in motion. If an individual is in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition, then they can be charged with a DWI.
DUI vs. DWI: Arizona
DUI and DWI charges can be tricky in Arizona. Each is related to consuming alcohol while driving a vehicle. DWI (driving while intoxicated) refers only to intoxication by alcohol. DUI (driving under the influence) refers to the offense of having both alcohol and drugs in an individual’s system. A DWI is more severe, as it often has to be accompanied by a test to prove, in no uncertain terms, that the driver was intoxicated.
DUI vs. DWI: Missouri
While there is no legal difference between a DUI and DWI in Missouri, local law includes a separate impaired driving classification: DUID. DUID stands for “driving under the influence of drugs,” and can be given if the officer believes the driver is under the influence of <i>any</i> drugs.
DUI vs. DWI: Arkansas
Drunk driving laws in Arkansas are relatively unique. Minors can be charged with an “underage DWI” when their BAC is above 0.02% but below 0.08%. Minors and of-age drivers alike can only be charged with a DWI, and Arkansas law prevents the “pleading down” of a DWI. Arkansas is an implied consent state: if an officer orders a BAC test, the driver must agree or face further legal consequences.
DUI vs. DWI: Colorado
As Colorado is a state that has legalized the recreational use of marijuana, impaired driving laws are very specific. As opposed to focusing either charge on alcohol or drugs, Colorado’s laws include a DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or both) and a DWAI (driving while ability impaired). To be charged with a DUI, the evidence must be based in a physical test with a BAC above 0.08%. DWAI is a lesser offense — to be charged, your blood alcohol content must be above a 0.05%, and the officer can make the charge on behavior alone.
Learn more about how a DUI or DWI can impact car insurance rates with The Zebra's guide to auto insurance after drinking and driving.