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What is a DWI?

Fact-checked with HomeInsurance.com

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is a dangerous and serious offense. Getting arrested and charged has lasting consequences — it will cost you thousands of dollars in legal fees, you may lose your driving privileges for a year or more and may have trouble getting car insurance.

What is a DWI charge?

DWI means driving while intoxicated or impaired. It’s a serious crime for good reason —  29 people die every day in the U.S. from an accident with an intoxicated driver. You may be charged with a DWI if you’re intoxicated from either alcohol or drugs. Although alcohol is the most common cause, drugs are responsible for about 16% of motor vehicle crashes, according to the CDC.

How is a DWI different from a DUI?

We know what a DWI means, but what is the difference between a DUI and DWI? The two are very related. Some states use the terms interchangeably, while with other states, DUI (driving under the influence) and DWI (driving while intoxicated/impaired) may refer to whether the influence is specifically alcohol or drugs. Other closely-related terms include:

  • DWAI: Driving while ability impaired
  • OMVI: Operating a motor vehicle impaired
  • OUI: Operating under the influence
  • OVI: Operating vehicle intoxicated

Some states punish a DWI differently from a DUI. In states where both are used, a DWI is considered to be more serious. States that use both as separate offenses include Arizona, California, Colorado, Maryland and Texas. States that don’t differentiate between the two include Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri and Virginia.

How much does a DWI cost?

A DWI is expensive, with impacts lasting up to many years. Here’s a breakdown of how much the decision to drive under the influence could cost:

Attorney’s fees – $1900

A NOLO legal survey found that individuals charged with a DUI or DWI will pay $1,900 in attorney fees on average.

Car towing/impound fees – $100 to $1,000

If a sober passenger can’t safely drive your car home, it will get towed and impounded. Costhelper found that recovering your vehicle could cost between $100 and $1,000, consisting of an impound and vehicle release fee of up to $250 and towing charges, which could cost as much as $800.

DWI fine – up to $3,000

Fines vary by state. Alaska, Texas and Utah have the highest first-time fines of $1,500 and $1,370. Alaska’s fine doubles to $3,000 for a second offense. Some states with lower first time fines will have considerably higher fines the second time. They include Iowa ($1,875), Arizona ($1,750), North Carolina ($2,000) and South Carolina ($2,100).

Ignition interlock – $75 to $100 per month

If you have to install an ignition interlock device (IID) in your vehicle, expect to pay up to $150 for the installation and $2.50 to $3.50 per day to use it.

Diversion programs – $360 to $626

Some states may require you to complete a program, such as substance abuse education courses or traffic school. Diversion program prices could cost as much as $800 to $1,250.

License reinstatement fees – $260

The DMV may suspend your driver’s license after a DWI or DUI. NOLO legal survey respondents charged with a first-time DWI/DUI offense claimed they paid an average of $260 to have their driver’s license reinstated.

Restitution fine – up to $10,000

Some states such as California charge DWI offenders with a restitution fine. The fine goes into a state fund to compensate victims of crimes. The restitution fee in the state of California is between $300 and $10,000.

What’s the impact of getting DWI?

A DWI conviction has multiple impacts on your life, both financially and otherwise. Some of the impacts include:

Premium increases

Damages from driving under the influence amounted to $44 billion in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Insurance companies see a DWI conviction as high-risk behavior and will raise your car insurance premiums accordingly. The NOLO survey of the cost of a first time DWI or DUI conviction found that respondents saw their car insurance go up an average of $800 per year. 

Driving limitations

If you’re charged with a DWI, your license will be suspended. If it’s a first-time offense, the suspension may last between three months and a year, depending on the state. Second convictions mean longer suspensions. A repeat offender may get their driver’s license permanently revoked.

You don’t have to be convicted of a DWI or DUI to face suspension — most states will suspend your license if you were driving with a blood-alcohol level above the state limit, typically 0.08%. 

Filing an SR-22

States may require drivers with a DUI or DWI to file an SR-22. Also known as a statement of financial responsibility, it serves as proof that you have car insurance. If you already have car insurance, call your insurance company and ask them to file an SR-22. If you don’t have car insurance, you’ll need to buy insurance coverage first in order to request an SR-22.

Driving record

One consequence of getting a DUI or DWI conviction is that they stay on your record for years, affecting your car insurance premiums for the duration. The length of time varies — a DWI or DUI will stay on your driving record between three and five years for most states. DUI or DWI convictions in Pennsylvania and California remain on your record for 10 years. Texas has the strongest penalty — a DWI will remain on your driving record for life.

The takeaway

  • There are several terms for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, with DUI or DWI being the most common.
  • Each state varies in the exact definition of DWI or DUI, depending on the intoxication level and whether or not the terms refer specifically to alcohol or drugs.
  • A DUI or DWI has lasting financial and personal consequences.
  • Your license will be suspended for up to a year for the first conviction and longer for repeat offenses

A DWI should not be taken lightly. Driving while intoxicated is one of the most dangerous decisions you could make. Thousands of people die every year as a result, and the financial impact of the decision could affect you for years. 

Some of the ways a DWI could cost you include fines, attorney’s fees, restitution and driver education. The costs could amount to thousands of dollars. Additionally, a DWI or DUI will remain on your driving record for several years or for life (in Texas), raising your car insurance premiums for as long as the incident remains on your record.

Cynthia Paez Bowman

Writer

Cynthia splits her time between Los Angeles, CA and San Sebastian, Spain. She travels to Africa and the Middle East regularly to consult with women’s NGOs about small business development.

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