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Understanding the Difference Between a DUI and a DWI

Every time you get behind the wheel of a car, you are taking a risk. You are taking control of a 4,000-pound machine with the power to inflict serious damage if not properly managed. When you complicate that responsibility with the potential side effects of driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, the consequences could be deadly. If you’ve heard the terms “DUI” and “DWI” but don’t fully understand the differences between the two, take the time to understand each—and the dangers they pose.


Generally speaking, DUI refers to driving under the influence, while DWI refers to driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired. It is important to note, however, that each state maintains its own DWI/DUI laws and the terms are used differently depending on the state.

In some states, such as New York, the two terms are both used to describe impaired or drunken driving. Other states have chosen to only use the term DUI or DWI to describe drunken driving. In still other states, a DWI refers to driving while impaired by drugs, alcohol or some unknown substance, while DUI refers to driving while under the influence of alcohol only.

While it’s important to know that these terms are used differently across state lines, what’s most important to understand is that driving while intoxicated or impaired is a crime, no matter where you are in the U.S. Drinking and drugs impair your judgement, impede your coordination, and can negatively impact your ability to properly operate a vehicle, which could result in damage to your car, someone else’s car or property, injury to yourself or another, or in worst cases, even death.

There are five factors that impact your legal level of impairment after consuming alcohol or drugs:

  1. The amount of substance you consumed
  2. The amount of food you ate before or while you drank alcohol
  3. The length of time you drank alcohol
  4. Your body weight
  5. Your gender

New York State DWI Laws

In New York State, the term most often used to describe impaired or intoxicated driving is DWI.

The determination for a DWI offense is based on blood alcohol concentration (BAC). A charge of DWI may be made against an individual whose BAC is as follows, based on age:

If you are found to have a BAC of .18% of higher, you may also be charged with aggravated DWI (A-DWI), a greater offense due to the greater risk associated with the greater level of intoxication.

In New York State, if you are convicted of a DWI, the penalties you may face will be dependent on your age, your BAC, and the substance causing your impairment. New York State considers DWI charges based on the following categories:

  • DWAI/Alcohol: Driving while ability impaired specifically by alcohol
  • DWAI/Drugs: Driving while ability impaired by a drug other than alcohol
  • DWAI/Combination: Driving while ability impaired by both alcohol and other drugs
  • Aggravated DWI (A-DWI): A 0.18% BAC or higher

Understand that in New York State you will face greater repercussions if you are charged with a DWI and you are under the legal drinking age of 21. New York State follows a Zero Tolerance Law, which stipulates that severe consequences will be applied to anyone under the age of 21 found driving with a BAC of .02% or higher. On a first offense, you could face a license suspension for six months, as well as a monetary fine, among other penalties. If you are charged a second, or third time, the penalties are more severe.

Don’t wait to be charged with a DWI to start making better choices. Remember that you can always call a cab, a ride share service, take public transit, or even call a friend or family member, to get you home safely. There is no excuse to take your life and the lives of others on the road into your hands by driving while impaired or intoxicated.

If you or a loved one is in need of substance use disorder counseling, treatment, or support, contact the substance use and recovery experts at Horizon Health Services today at (716) 831-1800.