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What Is the Difference Between DUI and DWI?

DUI vs DWI
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Updated February 12, 2024

You get pulled over. The police think your driving was questionable, suspect you are drunk or on drugs, and accuse you of driving while impaired. This is a serious crime, and if you are found guilty it may carry consequences ranging from extra insurance costs to fines, loss of license, and even jail time. It will likely also spike your insurance costs.

What exactly is impaired driving? The definitions cover a range of scenarios that include using a motorized vehicle with a diminished capacity. These laws are meant to lower driving-related deaths, though it’s important to note that often you don’t need to be driving a car to fall afoul of one of these laws. Use of a motorized vehicle is what counts—from a car or motorcycle down to a scooter or an electric bike. The specific definitions and legal terms will vary by state, and there is a fair amount of overlap. Terms include “operating while intoxicated,” “operating under the influence,” and, perhaps the most common,“driving under the influence (DUI)” and “driving while impaired (DWI).”

DUI vs. DWI: Key differences

Although it’s common to use DUI and DWI interchangeably, they can be separate crimes in some states.

Intoxicated or impaired?

The majority of states don’t distinguish between DUI or DWI. California uses DUI as its designation, which applies equally to alcohol and drug usage. New Jersey, on the other hand, prefers DWI, which also covers both alcohol and drugs. And that isn’t just illegal drugs. New York is only one example of the many states that criminalize the use of prescription and legal recreational drugs when they negatively affect your driving.

In places that do note differentiate the two terms generally distinguish between DWI and DUI by age or blood alcohol content (BAC). In Maryland, for example, DUI is a higher charge reserved for those with a BAC of 0.08 or higher. DWI is for those with a BAC of 0.07. Finally, anyone under 21 who has any alcohol in their system will be charged with a DUI.

How DUI charges work

If police suspect you are impaired, they might ask you to take a chemical test. Two of the most common are alcohol breath tests, also known as “breathalyzer tests,” which look at the amount of alcohol in your breath, and blood alcohol tests, which search for the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream. The standard definition for DWI, in this sense, is usually driving with a BAC of 0.08 or above. This applies to people at or over the legal drinking age of 21.

However, in some places police can charge for lower blood alcohol levels under some circumstances, such as when underage drivers are involved or when you are using commercial vehicles. For example, in New York, which has a “zero tolerance” rule, minors can get charged for any BAC that can be measured (.02 to .07). In California the legal limit for a commercial vehicle is 0.04 BAC.

In some places a failed chemical test isn't needed, and you can be charged for erratic driving and a failed field sobriety test, where police have you stand on one leg or walk in a straight line to test performance. Refusing to take a test is within your legal rights in many states, such as New York. However, in South Carolina it can get your license immediately suspended for six months.

What happens to car insurance rates after a DUI?

After an intoxicated driving charge you will likely see a steep rise in your car insurance rates. These charges flag you as a risky driver, which causes insurers to spike your rates. The increase tends to be higher for impaired driving than for car accidents or speeding tickets.

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Regardless, you’ll still have to meet minimum liability insurance coverage for your state. In some cases you may also be ordered by the court to file an SR-22, a certificate that proves you have the minimum insurance required by your state.

Potential consequences of a DWI or DUI in each state

The precise punishments for DWI or DUI differ from state to state. They tend to be steep, in part because impaired driving deaths are considered preventable and far too common. In 2021 there were 13,384 drunk-driving deaths, which amounts to one death every 39 minutes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In California, for instance, a first offense DUI gets a four-month license suspension from the DMV. (You can apply for restricted versions of licenses instead, which either only allow you to drive to and from work or require a locking device on the car.) The legal consequences can also include jail time, fines, and/or mandatory treatment.

The penalties get steeper with each repeat offense. In New Mexico, for instance, the first DWI offense for someone 21 or over is a license suspension of six months to a year, up to 90 days in jail, at least 24 hours of community service, and a $500 fine, while the second offense is a two-year suspension, up to a year in prison (with at least 96 days mandatory), at least 48 hours of community service, and a $500 to $1,000 fine.

TIME Stamp: DWI and DUI are interchangeable in some states; others differentiate between them—and punish them differently

Impaired driving, whether DWI or DUI, is a serious crime and can have severe consequences, including loss of license, fines, and jail time. The more convictions you have, the graver the consequences. Financially, in addition to whichever fines a court may order you to pay, you will likely see a rise in your insurance costs. You may also be ordered by the court to file a certificate that proves insurance, known as an “SR-22.” The exact rules vary by state.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

How long does a DUI stay on your insurance record?

An impaired driving conviction can darken your record for a long time. Some states have a washout period, after which a conviction will no longer count toward new sentencing in new convictions. In others the charge remains noted forever.

In California, for example, DUI charges wash out after 10 years. In New Mexico they remain for 55 years. Even after the washout period, people might be still able to see the conviction on your record; it just can’t count against you if you are convicted for impaired driving again.

Do I need an SR-22 after a DUI conviction?

An SR-22 is a proof of insurance certificate for risky drivers. It can be required by court order after an impaired driving conviction. You will know if you need one, because you will have received a court order. In Virginia and Florida these are known as “FR-44 forms.”

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