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The acronyms DUI and DWI express the language used by different authorities for drunk and drugged driving offenses; however, these are not the only terms used to describe impaired driving. DUI is often used to describe drunk driving laws in general, regardless of the different acronyms, because it is the most common amongst state laws. But is there actually a difference between the two?

In a few states, DUI and DWI can be used interchangeably, while in others, DUI and DWI offenses are explained and penalized in several ways. In most cases, individual states have different laws regarding differentiating between DUI’s and DWI’s. For example, in Texas, a DUI expresses when someone is driving with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above zero but below the legal limit of .08%, while a DWI is driving with a BAC above the legal limit of .08%.


DUI is an acronym for “Driving Under the Influence.” In most cases, this charge is connected with drunk driving, but it can also pertain to those under the influence of drugs or specific medications. In some states, a per se offense is given, meaning that a person commits the crime of DUI when driving an automobile on the road or highway with a BAC of .08%, even if they are not visibly impaired.

In most states, an offender must actually be operating an automobile to be convicted of a DUI, but this is regularly changing. An increasing number of states are beginning to use phrases like “operating a vehicle” or “being in physical control of the vehicle” in order to broaden the circumstances in which a person can be convicted of a DUI—like sitting in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition regardless of the whether the vehicle is in motion.


What defines a DWI is usually state-specific. In some states, DWI means “driving while intoxicated” and is essentially equivalent to a DUI. However, in other states, DWI means “driving while impaired.” Within these states, any level of impairment is grounds for criminal charges. For example, driving while falling asleep and driving while physically incapable of controlling a vehicle—safely— would lead to criminal charges. In reality, the elements of DWI are the same as DUI without drugs or alcohol being involved. 

No matter what acronym is used, a DUI or DWI designates that the arresting officer saw reason to believe a driver was impaired to the point of not being able to continue driving. 

Impaired Driving Acronyms

The acronyms DUI and DWI are the most frequently used expressions for drunk driving charges in the United States, but they are not the only ones. Each acronym has a specific meaning within the penal code of each state, so tossing around certain terminology doesn’t help when discussing particular jurisdictions. In fact, many states have more than one type of impaired driving charge, each with its own acronym. 

In over half of the states, the term DUI is used to identify the typical charge for driving under the influence, while ten states use the term DWI (driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired). However, various other terms are also used for standard impaired driving—usually for a BAC of .08% or higher— and including the following:

  • OUI - Operating under the influence
  • DWAI - Driving while ability impaired
  • OVUII - Operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant
  • OWI - Operating while intoxicated
  • OVI - Operating a vehicle under the influence
  • DUII  - Driving under the influence of intoxicants

Do Offense Names Matter?

Despite the numerous names, state DUI laws are relatively the same in defining drunk and drugged driving. So, for the most part, the names do not matter all that much.

In each state, based on a BAC or actual intoxication, any person can be convicted of a DUI. A DUI that is based solely on BAC is usually referred to as a “per se DUI.” All states, except for Utah (where the maximum BAC level is more strict), define per se DUI’s as operating a vehicle with a BAC of .08% or higher. Some states even have a per se drug-DUI law which makes it illegal to operate a vehicle with a certain concentration of drugs in a person’s system.

With that being said, all states have impairment DUI laws. But each state has its own laws that define the forbidden level of impairment differently. For example, in Nebraska, the DUI laws define under the influence as having a person's ability to safely operate a vehicle impaired to any “substantial degree.” On the other hand, California DUI laws define under the influence if “substantially” affected by drugs or alcohol.

When Offenses Names Do Make a Difference

Most states use several different names to explain other classes of impaired driving offenses. For example, the standard drunk or drugged driving offense in New York is called “driving while intoxicated” or “DWI.” However, New York also has a less significant offense called “driving while ability impaired” or “DWAI.”

Generally, when a state has two different types of impaired driving offenses, the driver’s level of impairment is the difference between the two. In states with numerous impaired driving classifications, an offender charged with driving under the influence or DUI can sometimes plea bargain for the lesser impaired driving offense.

DUI or DWI Consequences

Like any other criminal charge, a person charged with DUI or DWI is presumed innocent until proven guilty. If guilt is demonstrated through the defendant’s own plea or after a jury trial, the punishment will depend on the state law that the impaired driving charge took place.

Most DUIs tend to carry hefty punishments that typically include license suspension, expensive fines, and possible jail time. It is also becoming common for state DUI laws to require convicted motorists to use ignition interlock devices (IIDs) for some time after their license is reinstated. 

Jail Time

A first-offense DUI or DWI is classified as a misdemeanor in numerous states, and punishment lasts no longer than six months to a year in jail. However, in a few states, the maximum time a person can spend in jail for a first-time DUI offense is even shorter. For example, the maximum jail time for a first DWI offense in New Jersey is 30 days. And, although it is not common, some states, like Pennsylvania, carry no possible jail time for a first DUI.

With second and succeeding DUI’s and DWI’s, the maximum possible jail time is often more significant. Nonetheless, it is much more common for the mandatory minimum jail sentence for a second offense to be longer than the first offense.

Many circumstances affect the amount of jail time a person can expect to serve for a DUI or DWI conviction. For example, some states mandate more extreme punishments if a person’s BAC at the time they are arrested is much higher than the legal limit of .08%. Also, if someone’s DUI or DWI has been categorized as a felony—because the driver has killed or injured another person or due to the driver having numerous prior DUI/DWI convictions— it is not unlikely for the driver to receive a severe several year sentence. Again, however, it is important to remember that the specifics depend on the state in which the DUI or DWI occurred, the facts of the case, and the circumspection of the judge at trial.


Fines are the most common result of a DUI or DWI conviction. These fines frequently vary by state. But the same kind of factors that increase jail time usually increase the fines a driver can expect to pay.

In most states, a typical first DUI conviction is between $500 to $2,000 in fines. Fines for succeeding offenses and DUI’s or DWI’s that involved aggravated factors usually climb way into the thousands. Although it varies from state to state, the fines someone convicted of a DUI or DWI can prepare to pay are about the same.

Driver’s License Issues

There is a significant chance that a DUI or DWI offender will have their license suspended for an extended period of time—either assigned by the court or state motor vehicles department. Like other punishments, the suspension periods are normally associated with how many convictions a person previously has. For example, in Alabama, the suspension period is 90 days for a first DUI offense, a 1-year revocation for a second offense, and a 3-year revocation for a third offense.

License suspension can also result if a driver unlawfully refuses to take a breath, urine, or blood test. Typically, the suspension imposed for an unlawful refusal is exceedingly longer than what the driver would have otherwise faced.

Sometimes it is possible to obtain a “hardship license,” which allows a person to drive to and from places like school or work during their DUI suspension.

In few states, additional steps are taken to make sure that a person (typically a repeat offender) does not get back on the road while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. States can either confiscate or cancel a person’s car registration, temporarily or permanently, or require an ignition interlock device (IID) to be attached to the driver’s car. An IID is a breathalyzer wired to a car’s ignition that hinders a driver from operating a vehicle when breath alcohol is detected.

Alternate Forms of Punishment

In a lot of states, alternative sentencing options are available to certain offenders, such as prevention programs, substance abuse education, treatment for substance abuse, and community service. Oftentimes judges in these states recommend these steps instead of jail time or paying fines, usually for first-time offenders. Also, a judge might intermix these alternative sentencing options along with other punishments.

Young Offenders

If a minor is convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, they may face relatively different penalties than convicted adults. There is a zero-tolerance law in most states that do not allow drivers who are younger than 21 years old to drive with even the slightest amount of alcohol in their system. These zero-tolerance offenses normally don’t carry any jail time but will result in license suspension and fines.

Other Consequences

In addition to legal penalties, a driver’s insurance company will sometimes increase the driver’s rates drastically or even cancel an insurance policy because of the DUI or DWI conviction. It is important to note that a DUI or DWI conviction stays on someone’s driving record for a number of years.

Furthermore, certain jobs may be unavailable to those convicted of a DUI or DWI, like operating a school bus, delivery van, or any other vehicle as part of their employment.

In the end, the driver could face a separate civil lawsuit if there are accident victims that sue for bodily injuries or property damages. 

No matter how your state refers to impaired driving—and whether it has different types of charges for numerous offenses within that category—convictions for these types of crimes can significantly impact your life. 

A DUI conviction can result in jail time, license suspension, and fines. However, oftentimes, some of these punishments can be reduced or avoided entirely. For these reasons, it is pertinent to consult an expert DUI attorney to help determine your options.

Why Choose The Cochran Firm

The attorneys at The Cochran Firm are among the nation’s most successful and tenacious attorneys. When navigating through the DUI process, you deserve to have an experienced attorney by your side. The Cochran Firm attorneys know how to fight for you.

If you want to avoid the stress that comes with a DUI, you need a qualified attorney. You need a Cochran Firm attorney. Our attorneys work closely with each of our clients using pooled resources and their access to legal expertise to ensure the most effective legal representation available is being provided.

If you or a loved one have been accused of driving under the influence, please contact our experienced attorneys with offices nationwide today for your free, no-obligation initial consultation.

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