DWI vs DUI: What's the Difference?

How many alcoholic drinks does it take to affect your driving ability? One. Indeed, having just one beer or one cocktail can impair your ability to respond to split-second situations, which is especially dangerous when you're cruising behind the wheel of a 2,800-pound vehicle at night. The impaired driver courts accidents, injury and death.

DWI stands for "driving while intoxicated," and DUI stands for "driving under the influence." These acronyms can mean slightly different things in different states, but a conviction on either charge has similar consequences for impaired drivers who fail a field sobriety test. How does a DUI or DWI conviction affect auto insurance rates? How long will a DUI or DWI charge affect a driver's record? Read on for the answers.

What Is a DWI?

If you are "driving while intoxicated" (DWI), you may be intoxicated with alcohol, over-the-counter drugs, illegal drugs or a combination of them. While the term is used for only drunk-driving convictions in Minnesota and New Mexico, other states use DWI to include drunken driving and drugged driving: Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Texas.

In most states, your blood alcohol concentration must be below 0.8%.

In all these states, a driver's BAC, or "blood alcohol concentration," must be 0.08% or higher in order for the driver to receive a DWI charge. However, every state enforces different penalties, including fines, license suspension, community service, installation of an ignition interlock device, mandatory jail time. Let's take a look at the minimum penalties for a first-time DWI offense in just four of the states:

State Jail Fines and Fees License Suspension
ArkansasUp to one yearUp to $1,000Six months
MinnesotaUp to 90 days$1,000Up to 90 days
New JerseyUp to 30 daysUp to $500Up to one year
New MexicoUp to 90 daysUp to $500Up to one year

Further, Alaska, Arkansas, Minnesota, New Mexico and New York require first-time DWI-convicted drivers to install an ignition interlock device, an in-car breathalyzer test that prevents a driver from starting a vehicle until their BAC is established and recorded. Penalties vary from state to state but also from incident to incident, depending on the severity of an accident's outcome. Of course, a second or third DWI conviction will bring even stiffer DWI penalties, including license revocation and prison time.

What Is a DUI?

If you are "driving under the influence" (DUI), you may be under the influence of alcohol, prescription medications, recreational drugs or a combination of them. The following states use the term DUI: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Blood Alcohol Content

A driver's BAC must be 0.08% or higher to receive a DUI conviction in any of these states except Utah, which recently lowered its BAC legal limit to just 0.05% for a DUI conviction. The minimum penalties for a first-offense DUI are often increased if BAC levels are high (0.15% and above) or someone was injured or killed as the result of driving under the influence. In any case, you're going to need the best lawyer you can afford.

DUI and DWI Costs

However, all the state's sanctions—fines, license suspension, jail time—do not include lawyer fees, court fees, lost wages, higher auto insurance rates and other hidden costs associated with a DUI or DWI charge. The cost of a DUI or DWI can be high. In fact, a driver who is convicted of DUI or DWI for the first time can expect to spend about $10,000 at the very least. Let's take a look at the penalties for a first-time DUI conviction in Connecticut:

  • Fines between $500 and $1,000

  • Imprisonment for up to six months, although you could get off with probation and 100 hours of community service

  • Driver's license suspension for 45 days

  • For license to be restored, must complete a DMV-approved substance abuse treatment program

  • Upon license reinstatement, ignition interlock device required for one year

  • SR 22 required

  • Possible participation in a victim impact panel program

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How Does DUI-DWI Affect Insurance Rates?

The auto insurance industry is in the business of mitigating risk. Unsurprisingly, auto insurance companies categorize convicted DUI-DWI drivers as high-risk drivers. While some auto insurance companies may outright deny coverage to a high-risk driver, most insurers will simply charge them a higher rate to reflect a greater factor of risk.

If you fail a field sobriety test or a breathalyzer test and receive a DUI-DWI conviction for being over your state's BAC limit, your auto insurance rate will definitely go up. But by how much? Taking the states we've already used as examples, let's look at the average difference in dollars between pre- and post-conviction car insurance rates:

State Average Difference
New Jersey$1,175
New Mexico$1,350

If an average New Mexico driver was paying about $1,375 for car insurance before a DWI conviction, they will be paying, on average, about $2,735 after that conviction, for a difference of about $1,350. But these increased rates will not last forever.

How Long Does a DWI, DUI Affect Auto Insurance?

A DUI-DWI conviction can stay on your driving record from five to 10 years. However, a DUI-DWI infraction will most likely affect your auto insurance rate for only three to five years, depending on your state, your auto insurer, the severity of the motor-vehicle accident and other factors. You should speak to your auto insurance agent about your auto insurance rate after three years, just to see where things stand.

A DUI-DWI conviction will affect your insurance for three to five years.

Your insurance rate depends upon many factors, including your age, gender, marital status, occupation, place of residence, credit score, driving record, insurance history, and the make, model and age of your vehicle. If you have received a DUI-DWI conviction—the DUI-vs-DWI legal difference is negligible—you can still take steps to lower your auto insurance rate:

  • Purchase your car and home insurance from the same company

  • Buy a car with safety and anti-theft features

  • Take a defensive-driving course

  • Build up your credit

  • Take advantage of auto insurance discounts

  • Avoid all moving violations

Of course, safe, low-risk drivers never engage in impaired driving.

What Is an SR 22?

If you are convicted on a DWI or DUI charge, you will probably have to obtain an SR 22 form, which performs the same function as an FR 44 form in Virginia in Florida. Filed by your insurance company with the state department, an SR 22 is not auto insurance but proof of auto insurance. This "certificate of responsibility" proves that you meet your state's minimum requirements for auto liability insurance. Your auto insurance company will charge you an SR 22 filing fee—from $15 to $75—for every year that you are in the program.

SR 22 is proof of auto insurance, not the insurance itself.

Best Car Insurers for High-Risk Drivers

Are you a high-risk driver who is looking for cheap car insurance? Some companies are more welcoming to high-risk drivers than others. Safeway, Southern Farm Bureau, Travelers, Safe Auto, State Farm and The General are known for offering cheaper DUI and DWI rates than their competitors. Ask your insurance agent whether "non-standard" insurance might be right for your situation.

If you have been turned down by multiple carriers, you can always join a state assigned risk pool. According to the Insurance Information Institute, a non-profit organization, they provide auto coverage no matter the driver's history or driving record.

To find an assigned risk pool or a similar entity in your zip code, contact your state's office of insurance or speak with a licensed insurance agent.

SmartFinancial Helps High-Risk Drivers

A DUI or DWI conviction brings serious consequences. For one thing, you now face higher auto insurance premiums. While these higher rates are inevitable, you can still try to find the cheapest auto insurance you can find for your budget. In other words, you still have options, and the best way to capitalize on your options is to do some research and shop around.

The best way to find the cheapest insurance is to shop around. 

SmartFinancial can do the shopping for you, raking through hundreds of auto insurance policies in your area to find the right carrier and the right policy for you. SmartFinancial uses AI-enhanced algorithms to cut through all the data, and SmartFinancial's expert team of licensed insurance agents can answer all your questions. The best part? SmartFinancial will give you real-time quotes completely free of charge. Just enter your zip code below or call 855-214-2291 to speak with an agent right now.

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