DUI Vs. DWI - What's The Difference?

The Marble Team

DUI Vs. DWI - What's The Difference?

| 5 min

So here’s the question. Is a DUI the same as a DWI? The simple answer is yes… and no! The confusion arises because some states treat these offenses similarly, while others distinguish between the two.

Many people believe that DWI (“Driving While Intoxicated”) refers to drunk driving, whereas DUI (“Driving Under the Influence”) is an umbrella term that covers driving under the influence of alcohol, recreational drugs, or prescription drugs. In practice, individual states do make this distinction, but some don’t. Just to add to the confusion, some states have additional definitions, like DWAI (“Driving While Ability Impaired”).

Regardless of any distinction, your best course of action is to never get into a situation where you’re charged with a DUI/DWI offense. But if it does happen, here’s an easy-to-read guide on the subject, together with some advice on what to do if you ever find yourself in this unwelcome position.

The Meaning Behind A DUI

DUI refers to the criminal act of driving a vehicle illegally while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Concerning drinking and driving, that means you must not exceed a blood alcohol content of 0.08% (this figure is lower in some states if you’re a professional driver or under 21).

The law is less well defined when it comes to narcotics or other drugs, but if an officer has reasonable grounds to suspect that drugs are impairing your driving - say you drove through a red light or are weaving between lanes - then they’re lawfully obligated to stop you and charge you with DUI. In California, for example, you’ll be charged with a violation of Code 23152

How A DWI Differs From A DUI

In some states, there’s no difference between a DWI and DUI. In those jurisdictions that differentiate, a DUI is the lesser charge and may be based on your driving and behavior alone. It typically indicates a lower level of impairment, alongside a lower blood alcohol content level. Offenders under 21 years of age in Texas, for example, may be charged with a DUI rather than a DWI.

Compared to a DUI, in states where the terms aren’t used interchangeably, a DWI is a much more serious charge. It’s indicative of higher levels of intoxication, backed up by scientific evidence in the form of a breathalyzer, urine sample, or blood test.

In those states that differentiate, this difference is significant because you can expect harsher and longer-lasting punishments with a DWI.

DUI Vs. DWI - What's The Difference?

Is There A Difference Between A DWI & DUI In California And New York?

Both the Golden and the Empire States make no distinction between a DWI and a DUI. From a legislative and punitive perspective, there’s no difference between the two offenses. This also means that these states effectively have a zero-tolerance policy for drunk driving.

How Do These Terms Cover Drugged Driving Offenses?

Drugged driving is coming under ever greater scrutiny, especially with the increasing legalization of drugs like cannabis. While all 50 states have clear legislation, consumer advice, testing procedures, alcohol bloodstream limits, and officer guidelines around DUI’s, there’s much less clarity around drugs like marijuana and over-the-counter medication.

That shouldn’t lull you into a false state of security, however. Drugged driving is still a crime, and if your driving is impaired, you can still be charged with a DUI offense. What’s more, many states are now bringing in stronger and better-defined legislation for drugged driving.

Do The Punishments Differ From A DUI To A DWI?

In states that don’t distinguish, the punishments are the same for any DUI or DWI offense. In jurisdictions that do recognize the differences legally, a DWI is the more serious offense.

Drunk or drugged drivers may be charged under different sections of the same state vehicle code, but the punishments are broadly similar. The level of impairment is of more consequence than the source of the impairment. The only exception is that some jurisdictions may treat impairment caused by prescription drugs more leniently.

All states have a sliding scale of punishments, dependent on factors like whether you’re a first-time or repeat offender, the level of intoxication/impairment, the damage caused by the offense, your age, any mitigating circumstances, and so on. A first time DUI defendant slightly over the limit who failed to stop at a junction is likely to be treated differently to a serial offender high on drugs who caused a fatal accident by driving too fast.

But be under no illusion. If you’re found guilty of a DUI or DWI charge, it’ll have a profound, costly, and negative impact on your life. California’s potential penalties include fines, suspension of your driving privileges, attendance on rehab programs, higher insurance premiums, and even jail.

Your prosecution will impact your life in many different ways: socially, financially, and practically too: just imagine the sheer inconvenience of not being able to drive anywhere.

Why Does Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Matter?

It’s not too often that all 50 states universally agree on legislation, but that’s pretty much the case when it comes to the formal, legal definition of what constitutes drunk driving. If you have a blood alcohol level of greater than 0.08% when driving, then you’ll be charged with committing a criminal offense. Utah is the sole exception, with a limit of 0.05%.

Some states have even more stringent regulations. For example, in accordance with Californian state law, that figure falls to 0.04% for drivers of commercial vehicles and to 0.01% for drivers aged under 21.

The simple message? Alcohol and driving don’t mix!

How A Lawyer Can Help You Navigate An Offense

Although you can choose to represent yourself or use a public defender, many people decide the best option is to hire an experienced lawyer. 

A legal professional is chosen by you, offers personal attention, and is often more familiar with the specific areas of DUI law and plea-bargaining. They can use their particular expertise to expose any weaknesses in the prosecution’s case, such as procedural failings or negligence by the arresting officer. Plus, if you opt for a trial with a jury present, you’ll want the best help you can get.

Some defendants are put off by high upfront costs or excessive hidden fees. Still, with a little research, it’s entirely possible to find a legal team that offers top-class representation alongside affordable and transparent pricing. Many lawyers now provide a free initial consultation, and some may even be prepared to work on a pro-bono basis.


Driving while impaired can have life-changing - and even fatal - consequences for you, your passengers, other drivers, and pedestrians. Even if no-one’s hurt, you may be subject to severe penalties, great inconvenience, social exclusion, and shame.

Regulations around DUIs and DWIs vary from state to state. Still, one thing remains constant: you should never, ever be tempted to drive when impaired by alcohol, narcotics, prescription drugs, tiredness, or other factors. The risks are simply too great.

If you or a loved one are charged with a DUI or DWI, you may find that your best interests are served by having a legal professional at your side. They can advise you and guide you through the whole judicial process and potentially help you to secure a more favorable outcome from your case.

Images: Wirestock

Dec 30, 2020
The Marble Team