Is There a Difference Between a DWI and a DUI?

If you drive while impaired due to alcohol or other substances, you may face a DWI or DUI charge. While these three-letter designations are similar, they’re not always the same. Here are the differences between a DWI and a DUI and how they might vary by state. 

What is the difference between a DWI and a DUI? 

Though the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, there is a difference between a DWI and a DUI in some cases. 

DWI is the acronym for driving while impaired, or in some cases, driving while intoxicated. A DWI typically refers to driving while impaired on drugs, whether recreational or prescription. In this case, it’s a separate charge from a DUI. If the state considers a DWI driving while intoxicated, there’s typically no difference between a DUI and DWI charge. This difference varies by state. 

DUI is an acronym for driving under the influence. Driving under the influence could refer to the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other substances. 

A DUI typically refers to alcohol, specifically, a driver with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0.08%. However, some states may charge a driver with a DUI with a BAC at 0.01% based on the driver’s age (such as if you’re under 21 and not legally able to drink). Though you can be charged with a DUI after a breathalyzer test, law enforcement may still charge you with a DUI due to erratic driving, likely due to alcohol consumption, or a field sobriety test. 

Each of these charges can have different legal or financial implications for the driver and depends on state law. 

Which one is worse: DWI or DUI?

In some states, both DUI and DWI are considered interchangeable, and there’s no real difference. In other states, where there are separate charges for DUI and DWI, the DWI charge is often considered worse or more severe.

For example, law enforcement may charge a driver with a DUI based on behavior alone, but a DWI is generally based on a BAC of 0.08% or higher. 

In states that treat a DUI and DWI the same, you’re likely to get hit with a misdemeanor charge if there are no deaths, injuries, or other harm. However, you’ll still be on the hook for legal fees, fines, and additional costs, such as a DUI lawyer’s fees. On top of that, the state may suspend your driver’s license, your car insurance premium will generally go up, and you could see some jail time. Remember: It’s not worth it to drink and drive!  

If a DWI is treated as a separate offense from a DUI, there may be greater consequences. It depends on state law. 

If there was an accident as part of a DUI or DWI charge, your car insurance company might even drop your coverage. If not, your rates will often increase due to the higher risk. Your car insurance rates may even remain high for several years.

How common are DUIs in the United States?

Getting a DUI or DWI can have negative consequences, such as increased car insurance premiums, fines, legal fees, a suspended license, and more. What’s worse is that driving under the influence or driving while impaired can also lead to death or severe bodily harm.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 28 people in the U.S. die every day due to alcohol-related crashes. That’s approximately one death every 52 minutes. While incidents are decreasing, as of 2019, 10,142 people died because of a drunk-driving accident. 

One million drivers were arrested due to driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, according to 2016 data from the Center for Disease Control

Fortunately, DUI arrests have fallen significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. From March to May 2020, DUI arrests dropped 42% in California, according to the California Highway Patrol.

DWI and DUI laws by state  

Each state has its own DUI and DWI laws. So, if you’re dealing with a charge now or concerned about one in the future, you’ll want to look up the laws as they relate to where you live. Here are some DUI and DWI laws by state: 

  • Arizona: If you’re above the drinking age of 21 and your BAC is more than 0.08%, you can be charged with a DUI in Arizona and face a minimum of 24 hours in jail, at least a $250 fine, and a license suspension for 90 days or more for your first offense. 
  • California: California’s DUI law covers both driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and you may be legally required to take a blood or urine test. If your BAC is 0.08% or higher, you could get a DUI conviction. Drivers convicted of a DUI or found with an excessive BAC level can be sentenced to up to six months in jail and a fine between $390 and $1,000 for the first convicted offense. Law enforcement can also impound your vehicle, and you may have to pay storage fees while your car is impounded.
  • Illinois: Illinois drivers who are 21 or older and have a BAC of 0.08% or higher could face a DUI. The consequences include a fine of up to $2,500 and up to one year in prison with more severe penalties starting from the second conviction.
  • Virginia: In Virginia, you could face a DUI conviction if your BAC is 0.08% or higher. If convicted, there is a mandatory minimum fine of $250, and the state will revoke your license for one year after your first offense. 
  • Pennsylvania: In Pennsylvania, there is a tiered system based on how many offenses and your BAC. For example, if there are no previous offenses, and you have a BAC of 0.08%, you’ll pay a $300 fine, get up to six months of probation, and be required to seek treatment. This is a misdemeanor. A higher BAC of 0.10% to 0.159% can result in fines between $500 and $5,000 and prison time of 48 hours to six months, and the state will suspend your license for a year. 
  • Oregon: Oregon has a DUII, which stands for driving under the influence of intoxicants. You can be charged if your BAC is 0.08% or higher or if you drove under the influence of any other substance. There are mandatory sentences based on how many offenses you have. The first offense can result in 48 hours in jail, a minimum $1,000 fine, one-year license suspension, and one year of having an ignition interlock device installed in your vehicle. 
  • New Jersey: New Jersey has a tiered system. If you have a BAC between 0.08% but less than 0.10%, you could lose your license for three months, face fines, and spend up to 30 days in prison. If your BAC is higher than 0.10%, you may lose your license for seven months to one year and may face additional fines. 
  • Washington: In Washington state, law enforcement could charge you with a DUI if your BAC is 0.08% or higher. If you’re arrested, your license could be suspended for 90 days to two years unless you request a hearing within seven days of your arrest. If you’re convicted of a DUI in court, the license suspension can increase to up to four years. 

The bottom line

Drinking and driving is never worth it, especially when you consider the consequences and the risk to safety to you and others. If you plan on drinking, consider a rideshare app or get a ride from a friend. It is never worthwhile to drink and drive.

Melanie Lockert is a freelance writer, podcast host of the Mental Health and Wealth show, and author of Dear Debt. She’s a cat mom to two jazzy cats, Miles and Thelonious, an amateur boxer, music lover, and needs coffee to function.