It’s easy to confuse a DUI with DWI, since the exact definition can vary by state. But both are serious traffic violations that can have a huge effect on your car insurance. Driving under the influence and driving while impaired or intoxicated will end up imposing a financial burden regardless of what the acronym means where you live.
“Insurers price based on your driving records, so if you have accidents or motor vehicle violations, you’ll pay more,” says Birny Birnbaum, an insurance expert and executive director for the Center for Economic Justice, a consumer advocate group.
Getting caught intoxicated or impaired behind the wheel could increase your rate by an average of $800 per year, according to a survey by Martindale-Nolo Research.
Not only can it increase your auto insurance premium, but it also puts you and others on the road in danger and comes with additional financial and legal consequences. The same survey found the overall average cost for a first-offense DUI is $6,500.
Let’s look at the differences between a DUI and DWI broadly speaking — and how it can affect your car insurance.
DUI vs. DWI
Because there isn’t a nationwide definition, every state has its own set of laws and terms for DWIs and DUIs. Some consider DWI and DUI to be one and the same, while other states define them as two separate violations.
In general, DUI means “driving under the influence.” In other words, a driver with a certain level of alcohol in their bloodstream can be charged with a DUI.
The federal government’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) limit is set at 0.08%, but different states have different limits for their legal BAC levels. For example, New Jersey will charge a driver with a DUI if their BAC level is above 0.01% and they’re under 21 years old. In some cases, you could be charged with a DUI or DWI if you fail a field sobriety test, even with a BAC below the state’s legal limit.
DWI usually means “driving while impaired,” but some states define it as “driving while intoxicated.” If that’s the case where you live, then there is no difference between a DUI and DWI. But if your state does recognize a DWI as a different violation, then it generally refers to driving while on drugs, either prescribed or recreational.
How Does a DWI or DUI Affect Your Car Insurance?
Regardless of specific definitions, a DUI or DWI charge means someone was exhibiting risky and dangerous behavior while driving. And car insurance companies don’t like that.
Here are a few ways a DWI or DUI affects your car insurance.
Your Rates Will Likely Rise
If you have those three letters on your driving record, insurers will more likely see you as a high-risk driver, and your auto insurance rate could rise significantly.
The amount by which your premiums rise will be affected by your insurer and your location — but expect to pay at least a few hundred dollars more than usual.
“We want a rating system that not only encourages consumers to drive safely and avoid risky behavior, but also gives them clear price signals in how to invest in safety,” says Birnbaum.
If you’ve been convicted with a DUI or DWI, consider talking to an independent insurance agent rather than dealing directly with your insurer. An independent insurance agent can give you advice on keeping your auto premium down without affecting your policy.
Your Insurer Might Drop You
Your insurer can’t legally cancel your policy whenever they feel like it, but it’s a different story when it’s time to renew your policy. If you’ve been charged with a DWI or DUI, your insurance could refuse to keep you as a customer once your current policy expires, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Then you’d need to find another car insurance company that’s willing to insure you with a DUI on your record — but your rates will likely go up, regardless of who’s providing your auto coverage.
You May Have to File an SR-22, FR-44, or FR-19
Following a serious traffic violation, such as DUI or DWI, your state might ask you to file a specific form before you’re allowed to get back on the road. SR-22, FR-44, and FR-19 forms, for instance, prove to your state’s transportation agency that you have enough car insurance to drive safely. Those forms are mainly for high-risk drivers, and are typically filed by the insurance company or agency on your behalf.
You Could Have Higher Premiums for A While
You could have an increased premium for several years, depending on where you live and your insurance company. In some states, your premium will stay inflated as long as a DUI or DWI stays on your driving record.
Check your state’s laws to see how long a DUI can remain on your driving record, and ask your insurer about its lookback period for driving records. Typically, a DUI drops off your driving record after five years, but it could take longer, possibly 10 years or more. Certain states like Texas and Oregon will keep it on your record forever.
But as long you practice safe driving in the years following a DUI or DWI, you’ll eventually see your rates go back down.
“You want your premiums to not only be fair,” says Birnbaum, “but they should also provide incentives to consumers for safe driving.”