No one expects a night out with friends to ruin their life, but a DWI or a DUI charge can have serious consequences that linger for years- if not a lifetime.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a DWI or a DUI, you might be wondering what the difference is. Both are serious offenses with significant legal, social and financial impacts, but there are some important differences.

In this article, we’ll explore what differentiates a DWI from a DUI, how drunk driving laws differ from state to state and what to do after you’ve been charged.


DWI is an acronym for “driving while intoxicated” or “driving while impaired,” depending on the state. A DUI stands for “driving under the influence.” DWI’s are most commonly used when alcohol is involved and DUI commonly refers to another type of impairment. OUI is also a substitute for DUI in some states, meaning “operating under the influence.”

Whether you’re dealing with a DWI or a DUI, both charges indicate that a person was not fully coherent while driving and the driving thus endangered others. Intoxication can be caused by alcohol or drugs, and even if the substance is a prescription drug that is legally taken a person can still be charged.

There are clear similarities between a DWI and a DUI, and the two are commonly confused- and for good reason. You’re probably asking yourself “are DWI and DUI different?” 

Yes. And no. Really, it depends on the state. Some states use the words interchangeably, while some use DWI to refer to an impairment caused by alcohol, and DUI for other substances (or vice-versa).

Thus, defining DWI and DUI is a tricky task. Overall, it’s best to check on your state’s individual laws to learn the difference. For the sake of explanation, this article will use the state of North Carolina to explore how a DWI or a DUI can impact someone’s life.

Blood Alcohol Content

Before moving forward, it’s important to know this key term. Blood Alcohol Content, or BAC, is a standard measure of the ratio of blood to alcohol in a person’s body. Check out the Stanford Office of Alcohol Policy and Education’s handy chart to get an idea of the number of drinks for your bodyweight that could result in a DWI or DUI charge.

DWI vs. DUI in North Carolina

Since 1983 North Carolina has used DWI to cover all substance-related offenses. There is no distinction between DWI and DUI, but DWI is the term used. 

According to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, there are five levels of a DWI misdemeanor, the fifth level being the least severe. There are standards for jail time for DWI offenses, starting at 24 hours for a Level V offense, and a minimum of 30 days for a Level I offense.

If an individual has had three previous DWI charges and acquires a fourth, the person is charged with a felony and is required to spend a minimum of one year in jail and participate in a substance abuse treatment program. A person with multiple DWI convictions may also have to forfeit his or her vehicle to the state.

Laws in other states

To learn more about the laws and penalties in your state for alcohol-impaired driving, view the Governor’s Highway Safety Association chart here.

Other laws to note

When looking at DWI vs DUI it can seem like nothing is consistent from state to state. However, there are some laws that are more uniform across the country. 

  • Per Se laws: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in all states except Utah a BAC over 0.08% is considered drunk driving (in Utah it’s 0.05%, similar to most European countries, according to the European Transport Safety Council). According to Per Se laws, law enforcement officers do not need any evidence other than a BAC over 0.08% to charge someone with a crime.
  • Zero tolerance laws: all states have zero tolerance laws, meaning anyone under the legal drinking age of 21 who is operating a vehicle with a BAC greater than zero can be charged with a crime.
  • Implied consent laws: in the United States all drivers give implied consent to take a test by breath, blood or urine in the case that they are pulled over by law enforcement. Refusal to take a test can result in immediate license suspension, forfeiture of the vehicle, increased penalties or jail time.
  • Enhanced penalties: all states have laws that designate additional fees, jail time or other consequences if the charge is a repeat offense, the BAC was double or more than the legal limit, if a person was injured by the impaired driver, if there were children in the vehicle or if the person was driving with a revoked license.

What to do next

Although being charged with a DUI or DWI has severe consequences that can make you feel like the victim of a situation, remember that the laws are in place for your and others’ safety and the harsh penalties should help to discourage you from making the same mistake again.

0.08 is the legal limit, but in reality, any impairment makes driving less safe. It is always best to find a sober ride.

If you’ve been charged with a DUI or DWI and need help navigating the aftermath, October Road can help. October Road offers DWI assessments, legal assistance and a variety of substance use treatment services. Call 888-201-5086 today to learn more and get help in your recovery.

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