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DWI Vs DUI Differences

Difference Between DWI and DUI

The terms DWI and DUI are often used interchangeably in general conversation. Both refer to crimes involving driving while intoxicated. 

However, drilling down into the legal meaning, there are slight differences between them. DUIs and DWIs are not the same. 

DUI stands for “driving under the influence” whereas DWI is short-hand for “driving while intoxicated.” Some state courts interpret being under the influence and being intoxicated to mean different things, while others wrap all driving drunk or drugged under a single banner. 

There are good reasons why DUIs and DWIs are both crimes. Drink driving kills more than 28 people per day in the U.S., which translates to roughly one person every 52 minutes. What’s more, drunk driving is responsible for around a third of all traffic fatalities, despite only representing a tiny fraction of total miles driven. 


In most states, DUI and DWI have different legal meanings. For instance, officers may charge a person with a DUI if they believe that they have been driving under the influence of either alcohol or drugs. Moreover, none of the substances in the person’s system need to be illegal for police to press charges. Prescription drugs that impair a person’s driving ability are just as likely to result in a DUI as illicit substances.

DWI, on the other hand, means driving while intoxicated or impaired. However, just like DUI, the actual legal definition varies considerably by state. Jurisdictions, for instance, may have separate crimes for both DWIs and DUIs, or just charge people with one or the other. 

Ultimately, the differences between the two are semantic. In many cases, it simply comes down to the term preferred by local lawmakers. Most states go with DUI, but there are a significant minority of DWI-using states as well. 


Five states – Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana – do not use DUI or DWI. Instead, they use the terms OUI and OWI. These stand for “operating under the influence” and “operating while intoxicated” respectively. 

Lawmakers sometimes prefer these terms because they have wider scope than “driving,” encompassing more circumstances in which a person might be a hazard to themselves and others. For instance, a person does not “drive” a crane while operating it on a building site, but they could still put people in danger if they were over the legal alcohol limit. 

What Are The Penalties For A DUI/DWI?

As discussed above, the vast majority of states use DUI as their preferred term, with a smaller number choosing DWI. Penalties for first offenses are usually less severe than for second offenses. However, most involve some sort of jail time. 

Here’s a list of penalties for a first DUI/DWI offense for some of the most populous states: 

  • California: A 6-month license suspension, a maximum of 6 months in jail, and no more than $1,000 in fines, plus mandatory DUI school attendance
  • Florida: A maximum three-year license suspension, up to 10 days in jail and a minimum $300 fine
  • Illinois: Twelve-month license suspension, up to a maximum of a year in jail, and no more than $2,500 in fines
  • New York: No less than one-year license suspension, no more than a year in jail, and $2,500 in fines
  • Pennsylvania: No more than a year license suspension, a maximum of six months in jail, and up to $5,000 in fines
  • Texas: No more than one-year license suspension, up to a maximum of 6 months in jail, and no more than $4,000 in fines

Second offenses tend to carry dramatically more severe penalties. Here are some examples from the most populous states: 

  • California: Up to one year license suspension, a maximum of a year in jail, and no more than $1,500 in fines
  • Florida: Five-year license suspension, no more than 9 months in jail, and up to $2,000 in fines
  • Illinois: A five-year license suspension, no more than one year in jail, and up to $2,500 in fines
  • New York: 18-month license suspension, no more than 4 years in jail and up to $5,000 in fines
  • Pennsylvania: 18-month license suspension, up to five years in jail and $10,000 in fines
  • Texas: Two-year license suspension, no more than one year in jail, and $4,000 in fines

Generally speaking, the penalties for a second DUI are roughly twice as severe as the first. Drivers caught a second time are liable to spend a significant amount of time behind bars, in addition to paying hefty fines and being denied the right to drive for a considerable length of time. 

Which States Send You To Jail For Your First DUI/DWI?

Most states have minimum DUI/DWI jail time, even for a first offense. Incarcerations tend to be relatively short, but it depends on the decision of the court. 

In Alaska, for instance the minimum jail time is 72 hour for a first offense. In Arizona it is 24 hours, and in Arkansas, it can be anywhere from 24 hours to a year. 

California is one of the strictest states in this regard. It insists that first-time offenders spend between four days and six months behind bars for a first offense. In Florida, local courts send people to jail for up to ten days, while in Utah, the minimum stay is 48 hours. 

Some states do not require any minimum jail time at all. These include Alabama, Hawaii, Kentucky, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. However, that does not mean that offenders will automatically escape jail. Courts may determine that jail time must be served nonetheless. 

You can find the full list of first-time offense minimum jail times here.

How Much Alcohol Can You Have In Your Blood Before You Go Over The Legal Limit?

In every U.S. state, it is illegal for anyone over the age of 21 to drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of more than 0.08%. 

Minors under the age of 21, are banned from having any alcohol in their system above measurable levels, typically 0.01% or 0.02% of blood volume. 

The commercial BAC limit is 0.04%. Drivers operating in business capacity face disqualification and various sanctions if testing reveals that they are above this threshold. 

Everyone absorbs and metabolizes alcohol slightly differently. Therefore, there is no precise formula for how many drinks will take you over the legal limit. Larger people may be able to consume more alcohol because they have a greater blood volume than smaller people. 

Very few people will go over the limit with just one drink (defined as 12 ounces of 5% beer, five ounces of 12% wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor). However, those who are on the smaller side are highly likely to go over the limit with two or more drinks. By the time you get to three drinks, even the heaviest people will likely be over the legal limit for a time. 

The average person is able to process around 0.015% BAC per hour. Therefore, if someone who has a BAC of 0.12% stops drinking at 6 pm, they would likely dip below the legal limit by 9 pm. 

Do DUIs/DWIs Affect Insurance Premiums? 

If you are convicted of a DUI/DWI, your insurance premiums will almost certainly go up. Some insurers may drop you from policies entirely. 

How much your premium goes up usually depends on your carrier’s DUI policy. Most private insurers will ask you to pay twice or three times your existing premium to continue covering your vehicle. 

Some states require you to take out an SR-22 after a DUI/DWI. This certificate proves that you can meet local authorities’ insurance requirements for a set period, usually three years. You usually obtain one of these once your license suspension comes to an end. 

How Long Do DWI/DUIs Remain On Your Driving Record?

How long a DWI/DUI stays on your driving record depends on the state you are in when you get pulled over. Usually, you’ll need to wait between five and ten years to have it struck off. Most states are on the lower end of this scale, but some are significantly higher. 

There are a handful of states that will never erase your DUI history. For instance, if you get caught drunk driving in Alaska or Alabama, it will remain on your records permanently. 

However, you may be able to apply for an expungement, which removes drunk driving records from your distant past. However, to do this, you will need to pay court fees, make legal filings and complete a lot of paperwork. 

What Happens If You Refuse A Breathalyzer Test?

If police suspect that you are driving under the influence of alcohol, they will ask you to undergo a field sobriety test. These provide officers with a quick readout of your blood alcohol level to determine whether you are above the legally permissible limit of 0.08%. 

As a U.S. citizen, you can refuse a breathalyzer test, but should you? 

In general, refusing to take a field sobriety test is not a good idea. Depending on where police pull you over, you are at risk of having your license revoked. 

Furthermore, even if you don’t take a field sobriety test, you can still wind up in jail. Prosecutors can bring in other forms of evidence, besides roadside breathalyzer results, such as observations of your physical behavior and appearance, to convict you. 

Some states apply penalties differently, depending on whether you refuse a field sobriety test, or a blood, alcohol and breath test once you arrive back at the police station. Generally, the penalties for refusing a field test are less severe than once you are in police custody. 

The law considers driving in the U.S. a “privilege” and not a “right.” For that reason, states can levy fines, revoke your license, and put you in jail if you don’t submit to a BAC test. To justify this, they rely on the notion of “implied consent.” This means that if you drive a vehicle, you are implicitly allowing the state to conduct breathalyzer tests on you at will. 

If you refuse a BAC test, most states will revoke your license for twelve months. This penalty is more severe than standard revocations in most states. If you’ve had a DUI in the past, courts may also decide to send you to jail, even if there is no alcohol in our system. 

Data show that around 20 percent of people suspected of drunk driving refuse to take a BAC test. However, rates vary considerably by state. More than 80 percent refuse in New Hampshire, while only 2 percent refuse in Delaware. 

How To Avoid Getting A DUI/DWI

The law is strict on the matter of drunk driving because of the human devastation that it causes. Evidence suggests that there are around 10,000 drunk driving-related deaths every year, with a fatality rate of 1.1 per 100 million vehicle miles. 

Drunk driving deaths are falling over time, down around 10 percent over the last decade compared to the one that came before. This trend is being driven by the actions of citizens groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and public agencies, including the CDC and NHTSA. 

To avoid getting a DUI/DWI, you should: 

  • Use ride-sharing services on nights out, such as Uber and Lyft
  • Plan your transport ahead of time if you know that you are going to be drinking
  • Use an electric scooter instead
  • Avoid don’t drink at all when you go out with friends if you are the designated driver


While there is a slight difference between a DWI and a DUI, it is mostly semantic. In all 50 states, the legal permissible BAC limit is 0.08%. If you go above that, you put yourself at risk of license suspension, hefty fines and jail time.

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