Laws vary wildly from state to state when it comes to driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
For better or worse, the U.S. doesn’t have a national definition of DUI or DWI. In some states, these terms can mean the same thing. On top of that, laws have changed dramatically over the last few decades due to activism from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
And rightly so. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol is involved in 29 percent of motor vehicle traffic fatalities, while drugs other than alcohol are involved in 16 percent of motor vehicle crashes.
Below is an overview meant to clarify the definitions of a DWI vs a DUI and information about their consequences. If you’re facing charges, be sure to seek professional legal counsel.
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Is there a difference between a DUI and a DWI?
The short answer: it depends. States have different laws, definitions, limits, and terms for DWIs and DUIs. Both charges should never between taken lightly, as they both result in serious consequences. While what a DWI means and how DUI conviction is treated may vary, there are some general truths about each.
A DUI is an acronym for Driving Under the Influence. This is generally assessed by using a breathalyzer test to find the blood alcohol content/blood alcohol concentration or BAC. The federal limit is 0.08 percent, but some states have stricter limits. For underage drivers, limits are typically set at 0.02 percent. However, many states, like Illinois and New York, have adopted zero-tolerance policies for underage drivers. Additionally, limits may also be lower for drivers operating a commercial vehicle.
In some cases, a driver can receive a DUI without taking a breathalyzer test or even if a driver’s BAC is below the legal limit. In these cases, the charge is usually based on a field sobriety test or if the officer witnessed weaving and other erratic driving.
However, many states can also issue a DWI, which stands for Driving While Impaired. Typically, the purpose of using a DWI is to charge people who are impaired by substances other than alcohol. These substances can be both legal (like prescription or over-the-counter drugs) and illegal.
Also note that some states define DWI as Driving While Intoxicated, and these charges are treated the same as a DUI.
Is a DWI worse than a DUI?
Typically, a DWI is more serious than a DUI, as it signals higher levels of intoxication. As such, a DWI will have harsher penalties. In some cases, a first-time offender may get a DWI downgraded to a DUI.
Even so, both offenses are serious and will result in both administrative and criminal charges. These can include:
- Tickets, fines, and court fees
- Loss of driving privileges
- Alcohol or substance abuses classes
- Community service
- Jail time
- Mandatory installation of an ignition interlock device
- Increased costs for car insurance
Please also note that in states with “implied consent” laws, drivers are required to take a breathalyzer test at the request of a police officer. Refusal almost always results in a mandatory suspension of driving privileges. Some states will even revoke a motorist’s driver’s license.
How does a DWI or DUI offense affect insurance rates?
Much like a DUI, a DWI charge means big changes for your insurance. Rate increases mean spending hundreds more on insurance every year, for anywhere from three to ten years after the charge. Rate increases usually constitute the majority of expenses incurred due to a DUI or DWI charge.
Many states require that drivers provide proof of insurance by having their insurance company file an SR-22, or similar form, directly with the DMV. Our previous article about getting insurance after a DUI goes into greater detail about the aftermath of a DUI.
If your DWI is accompanied by other violations, especially an accident, the complications get even more difficult. It also increases the likelihood of an insurance company dropping your coverage altogether. In some cases, you made need to go through the state in order to find coverage.
You should also be aware that each insurance companies will treat a DWI offense differently, especially depending on how long ago the offense took place. For example, one company may lower rates after two years, while another may wait four years to reduce rates.
DWI Laws by state
For a better idea about how laws differ state to state, here is a short list of states with unique approaches to charging DUIs/DWIs:
DUI/DWI in Arizona
While it’s never easy to deal with the fallout of a DUI or DWI charge, Arizona may be one of the harshest states around. Although a DWI does need heftier evidence to prove—like a breathalyzer test—it’s generally worse than a DUI. The offense never leaves your driving record, though they do have a limit on the length of time a driver can be penalized by insurance companies.
Additionally, any driver who refuses a breathalyzer test in this “implied consent” state results in a mandatory 12-month license suspension.
DUI/DWI in California
Speaking of implied consent, California also has a mandatory loss of driving privileges, though only for six months after a driver refuses a breathalyzer test. Additionally, California is one of many zero-tolerance states for minors.
The fallout from a DUI lasts in California. Even if your insurance company no longer penalizes you for a DUI, you are not allowed to receive discounts on insurance for ten years following the offense.
DUI/DWI in Georgia
Georgia doesn’t use DWIs, but it has an equivalent. When a driver is charged with a DUI, they will be charged with either a “DUI per se” or a “DUI-less-safe.”
A “DUI per se” is given when a driver exceeds the legal limit. However, a “DUI-less-safe” means that a driver was intoxicated, whether or not with alcohol, to the point that impairs the driver. Swerving and erratic driving behavior will almost certainly land you with a “DUI-less-safe.”
DUI/DWI in Michigan
Michigan uses the terms OWI and OWVI to charge people with driving under the influence. An OWI, the more serious offense, stands for Operating While under the Influence of drugs or alcohol. To be charged with an OWI, a driver might have a BAC over the legal limit or test positive for a controlled substance. It also almost always results in a minimum 180-day license suspension.
An OWVI stands for Operating While Visibly Impaired. An OWVI conviction only requires that the driver showed visible signs of impairment, for example failing a field sobriety test. An OWVI has a mandatory 90-day suspension.
DUI/DWI in Minnesota
In Minnesota, to be charged with a DUI or DWI, you must be above the legal BAC limit. However, there is no legal difference between the two and they are often used interchangeably. However, the courts do recognize a difference in “aggravating factors” which will result in more serious penalties. These factors affect the “degree” of the charges, and in Minnesota, there are four degrees of DWI penalties.
Aggravating factors include a BAC above .15 percent, the presence of a child under the age of 16, and a prior DWI conviction within the previous ten years. And that previous conviction does not need to be from the state of Minnesota.
Be aware that there is no right to refuse a breathalyzer in this state. Doing so will result in criminal penalties.
DUI/DWI in Missouri
Missouri does not issue DWIs separate from DUIs. However, it does have a special designation for people suspected of Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID). A DUID is a more serious charge as it is never eligible for expungement. Missouri also has strict “implied consent” laws. Refusing a blood, breath, urine or saliva test results in license revocation for a full year. After a revocation, the driver is required to install an ignition interlock device for at least six months.
DUI/DWI in South Carolina
In South Carolina, there are no differences between then DUI and DWI. However, motorists can be charged with one for showing signs of impaired driving even if they test under the legal limit. First offenders face a minimum 6-month license suspension. Also, temporary provisional licenses—licenses issued with certain restrictions which typically allow motorists privileges to drive only to work—are only issued to drivers who test below .15 percent BAC.
DUI/DWI in Texas
In the Lone Star State, DUIs are the lesser charge compared to a DWI. However, they’re only issued to impaired drivers under the age of 21. Texas is also a zero-tolerance state for minors, so any amount of alcohol will mean a DUI. A DWI can be issued to anyone exhibiting signs of intoxication or above the legal limit who is operating a motor vehicle. The courts define the term operating quite broadly.
Texas is another implied consent state. Refusal of a breathalyzer test results in an automatic 90-day license suspension.
DUI/DWI in Virginia
While Virginia does not have legal differences between DUI and DWI, it has some notable laws concerning impaired driving. A person under the influence of drugs or alcohol sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition——even if the car is turned off—can receive a DUI. Drivers charged with a DUI/DWI may be able to plea bargain for the lesser charge of a “Wet Reckless” under some circumstances.
Finally, Virginian implied consent laws are some of the most strict. Refusal of a breathalyzer test results in license suspension for a full year.
If your state is not listed, you can find a full list here.
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