DUI vs. DWI: What's the difference?

Some states treat them differently, but they'll both have an impact on your insurance (and beyond).

Anna Swartz 1600

Anna Swartz

Published February 20, 2019

In many states, driving under the influence (DUI) and driving while intoxicated (DWI) can be used interchangeably, while in some, a DUI and a DWI are slightly different offenses for driving while drunk or on drugs.

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 where they are, a drunk driver can also be charged with operating while intoxicated (OWI) or operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI). But no matter the acronym, driving while under the influence can have extremely serious consequences.

What actually 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 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, which uses a breath sample to determine your blood alcohol content (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 test, so if your aim is avoid a conviction, refusing a test might not help with that.

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 arrested 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?

The severity of a DUI varies depending on 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.

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

How will a DUI 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 get 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.

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

Policygenius’ editorial content is not written by an insurance agent. It’s intended for informational purposes and should not be considered legal or financial advice. Consult a professional to learn what financial products are right for you.