DUI vs. DWI: What's the difference?


Some states use DUI and DWI interchangeably, while in other states, they’re slightly different offenses. Both are serious, and will have lasting repercussions on your ability to get affordable car insurance.

Anna Swartz 1600

Updated December 20, 2019|7 min read

Editorial disclosure

In some states, the terms driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) can be used interchangeably, while in others, DUI and DWI offenses are defined and punished differently.

If you’re not sure of the DUI vs. DWI laws in your state, it’s a good idea to check and see if your state distinguishes between the two. In Texas, for example, a DUI is driving with a blood alcohol content above zero but below the legal limit, while a more severe DWI is driving with a blood alcohol content above the legal limit of .08%.

Depending on the state, drunk drivers can also be charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI) or operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI). But no matter the acronym, a drunk driving conviction hurts your driving record and can make it harder to get car insurance. If you have a DWI or DUI charge, you may lose your driving privileges or be forced to use an ignition interlock device to start your car.

In this article:

What happens when you get a DUI or DWI?

Police should only pull you over if they have probable cause to suspect you may be driving under the influence, like if you violated a traffic rule or are otherwise driving dangerously. Once they’ve pulled you over, they’ll check to see if you’re intoxicated.

You may be asked to perform what’s called a field sobriety test to show you’re not impaired. These can be simple tasks, like standing on one leg while counting, or walking in a straight line and then turning around. An officer might also ask a potentially impaired driver to follow a light or other object with their eyes.

You might also be asked to take a breathalyzer test , also called a “breath test,” which uses a breath sample to determine the alcohol content of your blood (BAC). Depending on the state, refusing to take a field sobriety test or a Breathalyzer can lead to more penalties, like fines or possible license suspension.

You can still be convicted of a DUI without taking a breathalyzer test, so if your aim is to avoid a DUI conviction, refusing a test might not help with that.

What happens if you’re arrested for a DUI or DWI?

If the field tests or the Breathalyzer indicate that you’re intoxicated (in most states, the legal limit is a BAC of 0.08% ), it’s likely that your car will be searched, you’ll be taken into custody by the arresting officer and charged, and your car will be towed. If you’ve been arrested at the scene, you’ll likely be booked at a local station, which usually involves being fingerprinted and photographed.

Drivers might also be asked to take a blood or urine test, and again, in some states there are penalties for refusing. You’ll also be asked questions, and, as with any arrest, you have the right not to answer or to speak to an attorney.

Often, drivers are released after being booked. The next step in the process would be your arraignment, when you’ll enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. It’s probably a good idea to get an attorney before your arraignment. Depending on your situation, you may be offered a plea deal (a lawyer can give you advice about whether or not to take it). If you plead guilty, you move on to sentencing. If you plead not guilty, you’ll go to trial, where a judge or jury will hear evidence and decide whether you’re guilty or not.

If you’re found guilty, you’ll also go on to sentencing, when a judge, or sometimes a jury, will hand down the punishment you’ll face as a result of your DUI conviction.

Remember, no online resource, no matter how helpfully written, is a substitute for actual legal advice, so if you’re facing DUI charges and need help, speak to an actual lawyer or legal professional.

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What are the consequences of a DUI conviction?

The severity of a DUI varies depending on the DUI laws where you are, and if you have a history of drunk driving. In some U.S. states, first DUI offenses are misdemeanors and subsequent offenses are felonies; in others, all DUI offenses are misdemeanors. Whether or not a DUI is considered a criminal offense — as opposed to a traffic violation — also depends on your state, but in most places, driving while intoxicated is a criminal offense.

In some states, the severity of the offense depends in part on whether or not an impaired driver injured someone else. But the consequences of a DUI are always serious, and can include:

  • License suspension or revocation

  • Jail time

  • Having your car impounded or confiscated

  • Having your license plate confiscated

  • Mandatory alcohol or substance abuse treatment programs

  • Mandatory community service

  • Sobriety monitoring

  • An ignition interlock device (basically a Breathalyzer hooked up to your car that prevents the engine from running if it detects alcohol)

If you’re facing DUI or DWI charges and you don’t fully understand the drunk driving laws in your state, speak to an attorney or a legal professional who can help you understand the potential consequences you’re facing.

How will a DUI or DWI affect my car insurance?

A DUI is a serious offense, and having a DUI conviction on your record will almost certainly affect your insurance premiums.

Premiums are calculated based on how risky a driver your carrier thinks you are, and a DUI conviction sets of some serious alarm bells for an insurance company. The more expensive they think you’ll be to insure, the more you’ll have to pay in your regular premiums.

If you have a DUI conviction, your carrier will likely raise your rates significantly, or may not renew your coverage at all. In that case, you’d have to look for carriers that have coverage options for high-risk drivers. Not all insurance companies will insure someone with a DUI or DWI conviction, and the ones that are willing to will likely charge higher premiums and may not offer the same range of coverage that you’d find with standard car insurance.

SR - 22 auto insurance

If your license has been suspended because of a DUI conviction, you may have to ask your insurance carrier for a form called an SR-22, which proves to your state that you have auto insurance, usually a requirement for you to get your license back. SR-22 insurance isn’t a separate car insurance policy, it’s just regular auto insurance, but you must notify the insurance company that you need an SR-22.

They’ll then send the SR-22 to your DMV or equivalent department, which fulfils the proof of insurance you need in order to end your license suspension. But because requiring an SR-22 form lets an insurance carrier know that your license has been suspended, it signals to them that you’re riskier to insure, and you’ll likely see much higher rates.

Learn more about getting car insurance with a suspended license here.

How long does a DUI stay on my driving record?

Having a DUI or DWI conviction on your MVR, or motor vehicle record will lead to much higher car insurance premiums. But the good news is that a DUI or DWI won’t affect your rates forever.

Car insurance companies will look at your driving history, or MVR, as a tool for calculating how high or low to set your rates. A recent DUI conviction will lead to much higher rates, and may even lead to being denied a car insurance policy completely. But the good news is that a DUI conviction won’t affect your rates forever.

Most insurance companies only look at the past 3 to 5 years of your driving history when calculating your premiums. So a DUI conviction from 10 years ago may not affect your rates as long as you’ve maintained a spotless driving record in the years since.

As for how long a DUI or DWI will stay on your driving record with the DMV, that varies state-to-state. Many states use a points system to track driving violations, and different types of violations will remain on your record for different lengths of time.

In California, for example, points for more minor violations like speeding or making an illegal turn will stay on your record for 3 years, 3 months while a DUI, will stay on your record for 13 years. Check with your DMV or equivalent department to find out the rules about driving records in your state.