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What are the Differences between DUI and DWI

The differences between DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while intoxicated) may be significant in terms of the elements that have to be proven and potential penalties, or there may be no difference at all, depending on what state you find yourself in. Some jurisdictions use one term or the other, and some jurisdictions use both terms to specify different offenses.

DUI/DWI Per Se Offenses

In general, DUI refers to the extent to which a person’s faculties to drive are impaired, but does not necessarily require proof of the blood alcohol level from a breathalyzer or blood test. Depending on your location, DWI may require the same proof, or it may refer to what is called a “per se” offense. Per se offenses require only that a person’s blood alcohol content be above .08, which is usually proven by a breath or blood test.

In some jurisdictions, the per se offense is incorporated into the DUI offense, so that a person can be convicted if they are either driving while their faculties are impaired, or if they are driving with a blood alcohol concentration of greater than .08. In general, both offenses require that the person be operating the motor vehicle to some degree – some states require that the person actually be driving, while in other states it is enough to simply sit in a car and turn the radio on.

Variations on DUI/DWI Offenses Nationwide

Across the country, various terms are used for drunk driving offenses, including the following:

  • DUI: driving under the influence;
  • DWI: driving while intoxicated;
  • DUAC: driving with an unlawful alcohol concentration;
  • DUIL: driving under the influence of liquor;
  • OMVI: operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated;
  • OWI: operating while intoxicated; and
  • OUI: operating under the influence.

In most states, the offense of DUI or DWI will cover driving while under the influence of either alcohol or drugs, while in other states, there may be separate offenses for alcohol and drugs. Furthermore, the standard of proof required will vary depending on the jurisdiction, ranging from “slightly impaired” to “appreciably impaired.” Of course, when a person is charged with a per se offense, the state is required only to prove the blood alcohol level by breath or blood test results, regardless of the driver’s actual level of impairment.

Civil Liability of Drunk Drivers

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), alcohol related crashes cost an estimated $37 billion dollars each year, and there are as many as 10,000 deaths from alcohol related crashes each year. In addition to facing criminal charges and penalties, drunk drivers can be held liable for the injuries and other damage that they cause in crashes. Depending on the law in the jurisdiction where the accident occurs, injured motorists are entitled to compensation for economic damages such as medical expenses, lost wages, and damage to their property, as well as non-economic damages such as pain and suffering. Because of the potential for more serious crashes when a driver is impaired, lawsuits for wrongful death are also not uncommon.

Because lawsuits against drunk drivers are often defended vigorously by lawyers hired by the drunk driver’s insurance company, it can be critical that a person who has been injured in a DUI related crash talk to and retain a DC personal injury attorney as soon as possible after the accident, and preserve all evidence from the scene of the accident such as photographs, video, and contact information for potential witnesses.


Thanks to our friends and co-contributors at Cohen & Cohen, P.C. for their added insight into the civil implications of DUI/DWI charges.

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