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Alcohol & Health
Helping Alcoholics
Where Does My Call Go?
Updated on September 25, 2023
9 min read


Getting behind the wheel while intoxicated can have severe legal and financial repercussions. Unfortunately, many people don’t know the differences between a DUI (driving under the influence) and a DWI (driving while intoxicated). 

Both potential charges carry stiff penalties, depending on your current state’s laws. As such, it’s essential to understand what sets them apart to know where you stand if you find yourself in either of these situations. 

This post explains what constitutes a DUI and DWI. It also discusses relevant consequences that come along with them.

What is a DUI?

Operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs is a serious offense known as driving under the influence (DUI). This term refers to driving, operating, or controlling a vehicle while significantly impaired to the point where you can’t control the car safely.

Most people refer to DUI as “drunk driving.” An officer’s observation or the results of a breathalyzer test usually determines a criminal charge of a DUI.

The legal drinking limit varies from state to state. However, it’s generally high blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08% for adults over 21 and 0.05 for minors aged 21 and below.


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What is a DWI?

A DWI, or driving while intoxicated, is similar to a DUI. However, this type of charge applies to more than just alcohol. Driving while intoxicated can include any substance that impairs your judgment or motor skills, including prescription drugs.

DWIs are generally more severe than DUIs and carry harsher punishments. Law enforcement officers use more stringent tests to determine if someone is driving under the influence of a substance, such as field sobriety tests or blood tests.

What’s The Difference Between a DUI and DWI?

People often use the terms DUI and DWI interchangeably. However, they can have distinct meanings. While some states strictly use one term or the other, others employ both to differentiate between specific offenses.

Generally, DUI pertains to alcohol-related impairment. In contrast, DWI encompasses impairment that substances other than alcohol cause.

If you find yourself involved in a case of impaired driving, it’s crucial to familiarize yourself with the laws specific to your state or seek legal advice from an attorney. They can help you understand the charges against you and the potential punishments for a conviction.


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What are BAC Detection Methods by Law Enforcement?

DUI and DWI charges occur when your BAC level exceeds the legal limit. All of these methods that police use to help determine BAC can serve as evidence to support a DUI or DWI charge:

  • Breathalyzer or breath tests
  • Blood tests
  • Field sobriety tests (e.g., asking the driver to walk in a straight line)

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What are OUI and OWI?

Here’s how to distinguish Operating Under the Influence (OUI) and Operating While Intoxicated (OWI):

Definition and Differences

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. Sometimes, sitting intoxicated in a parked car that isn’t running can result in an OUI.

Impaired Driving Charges and Regulations

Operating a motor vehicle while impaired may result in charges. This is particularly true if the arresting officer determines you cannot safely operate the vehicle.

Interestingly, there are certain jurisdictions where the law can lay impaired driving charges, regardless of whether your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is below the legal limit. This situation can arise if you fail a field sobriety test.

It’s also applicable if you fall under a zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking (below 21) with any level of alcohol in your system. Remember, all people aged 20 or younger will face a DWI or DUI if their BAC exceeds 0.00.

Penalties for Intoxicated Driving

For an intoxicated driver, the penalties for DUI or DWI offenses can range from fines to jail time. Here’s a quick overview:

Penalties for First-Time Offenders

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

Consequences for Repeat Offenders

Repeated offenses increase penalties even more and leave lasting marks on your driving record. Some states impose mandatory jail time for multiple DWI offenses.

Others require an ignition interlock device for vehicles of people with multiple violations. This device 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 a first-time offender might face increased scrutiny or higher premiums from their car insurance company. Many states require drivers to undergo evaluations for substance abuse issues.

Which is worse, a DUI or a DWI?

For those concerned about which is worse, here’s how you can distinguish between the two:

Differences in Penalties Between DUI and DWI

A DWI is typically worse than a DUI in most (but not all) states. DWI penalties can include jail time; DUI’s usually don’t.

DWIs generally also carry larger fines and longer license suspensions than DUIs. For instance, in Texas, DUI applies to drivers under 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
  • Mandatory community service and alcohol awareness training

On the other hand, DWI applies to drivers over 21 driving while intoxicated. Fines can go up to $2,000 and include a jail sentence of six months. Penalties include license suspension for up to a year and mandatory attendance in an addiction treatment program.

Exceptions and Legal Guidance

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 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 because it is too easy to drink too much.

Statistics and Data

Here are some general statistics that outline the prevalence of DUI and DWI offenses in America. Additionally, you’ll find how different BAC levels affect your driving ability:

Prevalence of DUI/DWI Offenses

  • One person loses their life every 39 minutes due to drunk-driving crashes in the U.S. That’s 37 deaths daily
  • Alcohol-impaired driving claimed 13,384 lives in 2021, a 14% surge from 2020
  • One out of every four drivers involved in fatal or severe crashes in 2020 was under the influence of alcohol
  • Alcohol-related fatal accidents increased by 9% in 2020 despite a 13% decrease in miles drivers travel
  • Around 68% of fatalities due to alcohol occur during nighttime, while approximately 28% transpire during the day
  • Drunk driving accidents exhibit a higher statistical likelihood of occurring in June, July, and August

BAC’s Effects on Driving Ability

  • Lower BAC levels of 0.02 impair visual functions, such as tracking moving targets. It also decreases your ability to multitask while driving.
  • A BAC level of 0.05 contributes to impaired coordination, diminished visual tracking capabilities, compromised steering abilities, and reduced responsiveness to emergencies.
  • A BAC level of .08 results in impaired perception, decreased concentration, compromised speed control, short-term memory loss, and diminished information processing capability.
  • A blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of .10 diminishes the capacity to consistently apply the brakes and maintain lane position.
  • A BAC level of .15 significantly impairs concentration, visual and auditory information processing, and vehicle control.

Historical Context

New York and California Lead the Way

New York became the first state to enact legislation targeting drunk driving in 1910. California followed suit. Nevertheless, these initial regulations solely criminalized operating a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. They placed the responsibility of assessing intoxication levels on law enforcement authorities.

From Leniency to Nationwide Reform

Drunk driving regulations varied across states in the past, permitting this behavior even in the 1980s. As of January 26, 1985, drinking and driving remained legally acceptable in 26 states.

Significant changes began in 1980 when a young woman fell victim to a drunk driver. Her mother formed the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) organization, becoming an influential advocate for more stringent drunk driving legislation.

MADD’s efforts bore fruit in 1984 with the successful passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This groundbreaking legislation imposed a nationwide requirement to set the legal drinking age at 21.

From National Standards to State Innovations

Drunk driving was universally prohibited across all 50 states in 1988 with the full implementation of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This legislation mandated a minimum legal drinking age of 21. Moreover, it criminalized driving with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher.

Utah enacted its legislation to restrict BAC levels further in 2018. This state lowered it from 0.08 percent BAC to 0.05 percent BAC. Since then, there has been a 20% decrease in drunk driving accidents and fatalities.

DWI and DUI‘s Effects on Personal Life and Career

A DUI or DWI conviction can have far-reaching consequences. You may find it difficult to obtain a job in certain professions, including teaching and medical positions.

You could also face additional expenses for insurance, increased premiums, and higher rates on car loans. Even travel restrictions may apply in some cases.

In addition to the legal repercussions of a DUI or DWI, you may experience personal and social consequences. A DUI conviction can:

  • Tarnish your reputation in the community and damage relationships with friends, family, and loved ones
  • Make you struggle with feelings of embarrassment and guilt
  • Increase the likelihood of depressive symptoms


DUI and DWI describe the same crime: Driving under the Influence of drugs or alcohol. While DUI is typically for drivers under 21, DWI applies to those over 21.

Penalties for each vary by state, with some punishing both offenses the same. However, DWI charges typically include jail time and higher fines than DUI’s. A DUI or DWI can also have personal repercussions that can affect your relationships and life opportunities.

Ultimately, it’s best to avoid drinking and driving altogether to stay safe and avoid legal and personal consequences. Contact treatment professionals for guidance if you or a loved one need help with substance abuse. They can provide vital support during the recovery process.

Updated on September 25, 2023
9 sources cited
Updated on September 25, 2023
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. McCurley, J. “DUI and DWI Overview.” Nolo.

  3. Osilla et al. “Study design to evaluate cognitive behavioral therapy among a diverse sample of adults with a first-time DUI offense.” BMC, 2016.

  4. Thompson et al. “Do Victim Impact Panels Have Sustained Effects on DUI Recidivism?” MDPI, 2022.

  5. Roma et al. “Drinking and driving relapse: Data from BAC and MMPI-2.” PLOS One, 2019.

  6. Raymund et al. “A Phenomenological Approach to Assessing a DUI/DWI Program.” SAGE Journals, 2012.

  7. Is There a Difference between a DUI and a DWI in Virginia?” Charles V. Hardenbergh, PC.

  8. Rivelli, E. “Drunk driving statistics.” Bankrate, 2022.

  9. Drunk Driving.” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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