Alcohol & Health
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Updated on March 11, 2022
4 min read


What is a DUI?

DUI is short for driving under the influence of alcohol. This is popularly known as drunk driving.

A DUI charge is when someone operates a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above the legal limit.

Most states have set their legal BAC at .05 to .08.


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What is a DWI?

DWI stands for Driving While Intoxicated and tends to include both alcohol and drugs. 

Both DUI and DWI charges occur in cases when a person’s BAC is above the legal limit.

Methods police use to help determine BAC include:

  • Breathalyzer or breath tests
  • Blood tests
  • Field sobriety tests (ex: asking the driving to walk in a straight line)

All of these can serve as evidence to support a DUI or DWI charge.

What's The Difference Between a DUI vs DWI?

In many cases, DUI and DWI are acronyms that are used interchangeably.

Some states use DUI, while others use DWI. However, some states use both terms, and DUI and DWI are different crimes.

Most of the time, a DUI refers to alcohol, while DWI refers to other substances in addition to alcohol.

Anyone concerned with or charged with impaired driving should look up the DUI or DWI laws in their specific state or speak to an attorney.

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A few states use the terms OUI or OWI. Operating Under the Influence is used in Main, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Some specific jurisdictions use Operating While Intoxicated. 

The difference between driving and operating is that operating means you don’t need to be driving the vehicle.

In some cases, sitting intoxicated in a parked car that isn't running can result in an OUI.

Someone in a motor vehicle can face charges any time the arresting officer believes the driver is too impaired to safely operate the vehicle.

There are even places where drivers face impaired driving charges, even if their BAC is under the legal limit. 

This might be the case if someone fails a field sobriety test. It’s also true under a zero-tolerance policy for anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 with any alcohol in their system.

Someone 20 or younger will be charged with a DWI or DUI if their BAC is anything over 0.00.

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Penalties for Intoxicated Driving

Over the years, penalties for any impaired driving, regardless of whether the crime charged is DUI or DWI, have increased. 

Penalties for a first offense can include:

  • Temporary loss of driver's license
  • Monetary fines
  • Mandatory attendance in substance abuse education programs
  • Possible jail time

Repeated offenses increase penalties even more. Some states impose mandatory jail time for multiple DWI offenses.

Others require an ignition interlock device for vehicles owned by people with multiple violations. This is a device that requires the driver to breathe into it to start the car. It prevents them from driving if it detects alcohol on the breath.

Additionally, even first-time offenders face car insurance increases. Many states require drivers to undergo evaluations for substance abuse issues.

Which is worse, a DUI or DWI?

In most (but not all) states, a DWI is typically worse than a DUI.

DWI penalties can include jail time; DUI's usually don't.

DWI's generally also carry larger fines and longer license suspensions than DUI's.

For instance, in Texas, DUI applies to drivers under the age of 21, determined to be driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

This charge results in a potential 60-day license suspension, up to $500 in fines, and mandatory community service and alcohol awareness training.

On the other hand, DWI applies to drivers over the age of 21 found to be driving while intoxicated. Fines can be up to $2,000 and include a jail sentence of as long as 6 months.

Penalties also include license suspension up to a year and mandatory attendance in an addiction treatment program.

However, there are states where the two offenses are equally serious.

In Virginia, for example, you could face the following penalties for either a DUI or DWI:

  • Jail time of up to 12 months
  • $250 to $2,500 fine
  • Up to 1 year suspension of driving privileges

Because DUI laws vary so much depending on the circumstances and state where the charges occur, you should contact a defense attorney who can provide legal advice.

Of course, it's best to avoid drinking and driving altogether by having a designated driver plan in place because it is too easy to drink too much.

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Updated on March 11, 2022
8 sources cited
Updated on March 11, 2022
All Alcoholrehabhelp content is medically reviewed or fact checked to ensure as much factual accuracy as possible.

We have strict sourcing guidelines and only link to reputable media sites, academic research institutions and, whenever possible, medically peer reviewed studies.
  2. Brown, David. “DUI and DWI Overview.” www.Nolo.Com, Nolo, 10 Oct. 2011.
  3. Cavaiola, Alan A., et al. “Characteristics of DUI Recidivists: A 12-Year Follow-up Study of First Time DUI Offenders.” Addictive Behaviors, Pergamon, 28 July 2006.
  4. DG;, Fors SW;Rojek. “The Effect of Victim Impact Panels on DUI/DWI Rearrest Rates: a Twelve-Month Follow-Up.” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
  5. Nochajski, Thomas H., and Paul R. Stasiewicz. “Relapse to Driving under the Influence (DUI): A Review.” Clinical Psychology Review, Pergamon, 20 Dec. 2005.
  6. Raymund E. Narag, Sheila Royo Maxwell. “A Phenomenological Approach to Assessing a DUI/DWI Program." SAGE Journals.
  7. Spiehler, Vina, et al. “CUT-OFF CONCENTRATIONS FOR DRUGS OF ABUSE IN SALIVA FOR ...” Forensic Science, Problems of Forensic Sciences, 16 May 2000.
  8. Is There a Difference between a DUI and a DWI in Virginia?” Charles V. Hardenbergh, PC.

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