What is the Difference Between DUI and DWI?


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Both DUI and DWI have made their way into our common speech, but often we forget exactly what they mean. Moreover, there is often confusion over the distinction between a DUI or a DWI that can be enhanced by the variations between differing jurisdictions.

“DUI” is an acronym for “Driving Under the Influence.” This is the charge typically associated with drunk driving, but it can also be applied to those who are under the influence of drugs or medications. Some states also provide for a per se offense, meaning a person commits the crime of DUI when driving a motor vehicle on a road or highway with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 percent, regardless of whether they are visibly impaired.

In many states, a defendant must actually be driving a vehicle in order to be convicted of a drunk driving offense, but this is changing. More and more states use phrases like “operating a vehicle” or “being in physical control of the vehicle” in order to broaden the situations in which one may be convicted of a DUI, such as sitting in the driver's seat with the keys in the ignition, even if the car is not moving.

What constitutes a “DWI” on the other hand is often state-specific. In some states, “DWI” stands for “driving while intoxicated” and is essentially a synonym for “DUI.” In other cases, “DWI” means “driving while impaired.” In these jurisdictions, any impairment can be grounds for criminal charges, including driving while falling asleep, driving while physically incapable of safely controlling the vehicle, etc. In essence, the elements are the same as a DUI, but drugs or alcohol need not be involved.

Regardless of the acronym used, either a DUI or a DWI means the arresting officer has reason to believe the driver is too impaired to continue to drive. If you have any reason to believe that you could be impaired while driving, whether because of intoxication, drug use, sleepiness, or other reasons, you should simply find a different way to travel or put off the trip until you are no longer impaired. This is good advice not only for avoiding criminal prosecution, but also for your own personal safety and the safety of others. Moreover, even if the police do not catch you driving impaired, that does not mean that you might not have a car accident that exposes you to civil liability (i.e., payment of money for damaging someone's property or injuring somebody).

If you have been criminally charged with a DUI or a DWI or if you fear you may become civilly liable for actions taken while impaired, you should contact an attorney in your jurisdiction with experience in these types of cases. On the other hand, if you have been injured by someone you suspect of having been impaired, you may want to contact local law enforcement and a private attorney to pursue a claim against the impaired driver for any injuries or damage you sustained.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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