DWI vs. DUI: What You Need to Know

by LegalFix
Posted: June 20, 2023

Drunk, high, or otherwise impaired driving is as irresponsible as it is illegal. While you probably have heard the terms “driving while intoxicated” or “driving under the influence,” you may be confused by the exact difference between DWI vs. DUI charges. Today we’ll look at the legal definitions of these terms to better understand the nuances of impaired driving violations. 

DWI vs. DUI vs. OUI

Often, the terms DWI vs. DUI are used interchangeably. Semantic differences like these can make a big difference in legal verbiage, but in this case, there is no federally mandated definition of these terms. The primary difference between these common “drunk driving” offenses comes down to which state you’re in. 

 In some states, a DUI may be considered a lesser crime than a DWI. In some other jurisdictions, DWI vs. DUI can be used to differentiate between alcohol impairment (DWI) and drugs (DUI). In many cases, however, there is only one preferred term used to refer to any violation of this type, regardless of how serious the offense or which substances are in your system.

 Instead of a DWI or DUI, some states can charge drivers with “Operating” while intoxicated or under the influence, called an OUI or OWI. Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan all use this terminology to describe driving with substances in your system. 

Other Types of Impaired Driving Violations

While the above terms are the accepted standard for impaired driving laws, some states prosecute different violations with even more specificity. In some cases, violations can be separated into the categories of operating while visibly impaired (OWVI) and driving with an unlawful alcohol concentration (DUAC). 

Is Any Type of Impaired Driving Illegal?

While alcohol has not been illegal in the United States since Prohibition ended in 1933, some people hold the misconception that DWI and DUI citations have to do with the legality of the substance you’ve taken. This is not the case. Operating a motor vehicle with meaningful amounts of any intoxicant in your system, legal or illegal, is a violation of traffic laws. 

 This is not only true for mind-altering substances like alcohol or narcotics. According to the US Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA), pain medications, cough syrup, and even allergy medicine can inhibit you in a way that makes it illegal to get behind the wheel. 

 Regardless of whether or not you’re under the influence of any substance, it’s important to know your rights at a traffic stop as well. For example, while you may be required to take a field sobriety test, the Fourth Amendment protects your right to refuse to allow police to search your car without reasonable suspicion of a crime. 

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