What’s the Difference Between DWI and DUI?

Updated December 15, 2023
14 min read
What’s the Difference Between DWI and DUI?


If you have ever been confronted with a drunk driving issue, you might be curious about the difference between a DWI and a DUI. In simple terms, DWI stands for “driving while intoxicated,” while DUI stands for “driving under the influence” of drugs or alcohol. DWI is viewed as the more severe crime because, in addition to driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it necessitates that the substance level in the blood has surpassed a specific limit that the court deems intoxicating. Consequently, the penalties for driving while intoxicated are often steeper. Each state has its own set of laws governing DUI versus DWI, which can differ significantly. Keep reading to gain insight into the contrast between DUI and DWI.

Defining DUI and DWI

Both the DWI and DUI definitions are often used by people who are not familiar with these definitions. While both a DWI and a DUI are offenses in the United States, they each have their own distinct meaning. The penalties and repercussions for someone who is charged with either a DUI or DWI will differ. So, what exactly are the terms DWI and DUI?

Understanding of DUI

To comprehend what a DUI is, we should examine the definition. DUI stands for “Driving Under the Influence”, which is a crime in the United States. This implies operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. In many states, you can be charged with a DUI if your blood alcohol content (BAC) is above a certain limit –– usually 0.08%. A DUI is an offense of lesser impairment compared to a DWI.

Understanding of DWI

To understand what a DWI is, again, we need to look at the definition of the offense. DWI is “Driving While Intoxicated”. You will receive a DWI charge if you are driving or operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs. DWI charges are usually more severe than DUI charges, but this can vary by state.

Drunk and Drugged Driving Laws

Although the DUI vs DWI terms “drunk driver” and “drugged driver” may seem interchangeable, they actually refer to different offenses. While drunk driving rates have decreased in the United States in recent years, rates of drugged driving have continued to rise.

Efforts by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have helped to reduce drunk driving occurrences by implementing stricter laws and harsher penalties. For example, the blood alcohol limit for drunk driving has been lowered in many states, from 0.15% to 0.10% to 0.08%, and in at least one state to 0.05%.

However, drugged driving laws are more complex, and proving the offense of drugged driving can be difficult. A wide variety of drugs, including illicit substances, prescription medications, and over-the-counter drugs, can impair a driver’s ability to operate a vehicle safely. Some examples of such drugs include:

  • Marijuana

  • Cocaine

  • Methamphetamines

  • LSD

  • Heroin

  • Valium

  • Hydrocodone

  • Decongestants

  • Antidepressants

  • Antihistamines

  • Sleeping medications

Whether a driver has a legitimate prescription for medication or is taking an over-the-counter drug, it is essential to adhere to all cautionary labels and not operate a vehicle unless it is confirmed that the medication will not have a detrimental effect on driving aptitude.

In 44 states, if a driver’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) level is above a certain point, they face harsher penalties for drunk driving than usual. The BAC level can range from 0.10% in New Jersey to 0.20% in states such as Idaho, Massachusetts, and Tennessee. Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Oregon, and Vermont are the only six states that do not have these “enhanced penalty” laws. In every state across the US, however, drivers have given their implied consent to have their BAC levels tested if they are suspected of driving while under the influence.

DWI vs. DUI: State-by-state Differences

The laws in each state govern what actions constitute a DWI and DUI, with the specific penalties for each offense varying depending on the US state.

In all but one state, the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level for drunk driving is set at 0.08%. However, Utah has set its BAC level for drunk driving at 0.05%.

All 50 states have established a “zero tolerance” policy for minors who operate a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. They have also implemented laws related to BAC levels for drivers under 21 years old. Eight states have set the BAC level for underage drivers at 0.00%, one state has put it at 0.01%, and the remaining states have set it at 0.02%.

It is paramount to follow all warning labels on medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, before operating a vehicle to ensure they won’t have any negative impact on your driving performance. Generally speaking, DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while intoxicated by drugs) are criminal offenses in the U.S., with severe penalties such as fines, license suspension, and even jail time. Additionally, 44 states possess enhanced penalty laws that will lead to harsher sentences when a driver’s BAC level is above a specified level. Lastly, all 50 states uphold an implied consent law, meaning drivers give their tacit consent for their blood alcohol level to be tested if pulled over for suspicion of DUI or DWI.

Possible Penalties for DUI & DWI

As mentioned above, the penalties for DUI and DWI vary from state to state. In most states, if a driver has a prior drunk or impaired driving offense, the penalties will be greater. Some courts may reduce the penalties for DWI and DUI if a defendant agrees to seek treatment from an approved rehabilitation center; however, not all courts do so.


In most states, the penalty for a first-offense DUI and DWI will range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars, along with a possible jail sentence of a few days to a few months. Most first-time offenders will also be on probation from six months to two years. Each state, however, has its own laws regarding penalties for drunk and impaired driving violations. Your state may also have an enhanced penalty provision. Additionally, if you were involved in an accident that injured others or you were charged with additional traffic violations such as public intoxication, your penalty could be much more severe. You should seek the advice of experienced DUI & DWI lawyers in your town to review your case. Be sure to bring all documents provided to you by the police department upon your release from arrest. Also, be completely honest with your attorney about what happened. All communications between a client and an attorney are private, privileged, and confidential.

Second or third-offense

The consequences can be very severe if you’re caught for a second or third DUI or DWI. You could be looking at hundreds to thousands of dollars in fines and time behind bars –– potentially from several days to several months. If an injury resulted from the offense, that punishment will likely be even more substantial. In such DUI and DWI cases, it’s best to get a hold of a local lawyer immediately.

DUI vs. DWI: Which Is Worse?

Although DUI vs DWI are commonly used interchangeably to describe the same offense, they carry different meanings in most states. Typically, driving under the influence carries a less severe punishment than driving while intoxicated. When defining which is worse: DWI or DUI –– the former is generally regarded as the more severe charge. Nonetheless, since the laws vary from state to state, it’s advisable to seek the assistance of a proficient DUI & DWI attorney in your locality to comprehend the specific charges against you.

Will DUIs and DWIs Impact Your Insurance Rates?

Driving under the influence and driving while intoxicated are serious criminal offenses that can result in significant and enduring consequences. Among the most prevalent outcomes of being convicted of a DUI vs DWI is the negative effect on insurance rates. Typically, insurance providers will raise premiums or even cancel coverage following a DUI or DWI conviction. Moreover, individuals with a DUI record may encounter challenges in obtaining insurance in the future.

Summing Up

The difference between DWI and DUI is that although both are considered criminal offenses in all 50 states, DWI carries more severe penalties and is easier to prove. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit for drunk driving is typically 0.08% in 49 states, while in Utah, it is 0.05%. The consequences of a DWI or DUI conviction can be severe, with harsh penalties that can cause long-term harm. It is not worth risking your safety and well-being by driving under the influence of any substance that could impair your driving ability.

It is not worth risking your safety and well-being by driving under the influence of any substance that could impair your driving ability. In fact, to help manage any potential legal issues, it might be prudent to have a power of attorney form prepared in advance, granting a trusted person the authority to make decisions on your behalf if necessary.

If you face charges of DWI vs DUI, it is vital to consult a competent criminal defense attorney who specializes in these cases promptly. They can help you understand the charges, the potential penalties, and the available options to develop a strong defense.

Article by
Yevheniia Savchenko

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Product Content Manager at Lawrina. Yevheniia creates user interface copies for Lawrina products, writes release notes, and helps customers get the best user experience from all Lawrina products. Also, Yevheniia is in charge of creating helpful content on legal template pages (Lawrina Templates) and up-to-date information on US law (Lawrina Guides). In her spare time, Yevheniia takes up swimming, travels, and goes for a walk in her home city.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the product or UX content for Lawrina, feel free to contact Yevheniia directly at y.savchenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a felony DWI?

A felony Driving While Intoxicated is a more severe offense than a misdemeanor Driving While Intoxicated. It occurs when an individual commits multiple Driving While Intoxicated crimes, which cause severe injury or death while driving under the influence, or has a prior felony conviction on their record.


Do I need an attorney to represent me for a first-time offense DWI or DUI?

Although it’s not legally required, it is advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney specializing in Driving While Intoxicated or Driving Under the Influence cases. An attorney can help you navigate the legal system, understand the charges against you, and build a strong defense.


Can I be arrested for DUI if I am not legally intoxicated?

Yes, you can be arrested for Driving Under the Influence even if your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is below the legal limit. If the officer determines that your ability to operate a vehicle is impaired or diminished, they can still arrest you for Driving Under the Influence.


What is the cost of a DWI charge?

The cost of a DWI charge can vary significantly depending on several factors, including the state where the offense occurred, the severity of the offense, and the cost of legal representation. Additional costs can include court fees, fines, increased insurance premiums, and attending an alcohol education program.


What should I do if I’ve been charged with a DUI?

If you’ve been charged with Driving Under the Influence, it’s essential to consult an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. Your attorney can help you understand the charges and potential penalties and will have the options to help you develop a strong defense against the charge.

Can you obtain car insurance after receiving a DUI or DWI?

Even though you will still be able to get car insurance after a charge of DUI or DWI, your car insurance premiums will more likely be more expensive if you have been caught for a DUI or DWI. Insurance companies may also refuse to provide insurance for drivers with previous convictions.


Will I go to jail if I receive a DUI or DWI?

Jail time for a DUI or DWI will depend on various factors. These factors may include how severe the offense was, the state in which the offense was committed, if the accused had any prior or pending offenses. In certain instances, jail time will be mandatory if you were arrested for a DUI or DWI.


How long does a DWI stay on record?

The length of time a DWI stays on your record varies depending on the state where the offense occurred. In some states, Driving While Intoxicated remains on your record for ten years, while in others, it may remain on your record for your entire life.

In conclusion, understanding the differences between DUI and DWI, as well as the potential consequences of each offense, is essential. It is important to prioritize safety and responsibility while driving to avoid legal trouble or harm to oneself or others. If you are facing a DUI or DWI charge, seek the help of a qualified attorney who can provide guidance and support throughout the legal process.