After a celebratory dinner and a few glasses of wine, a pleasant evening ends with a brief drive home. The driver doesn’t feel drunk. Yet, shortly before they arrive, they’re stopped by an officer.
For many people, this is the story of how they got their first DUI (driving under the influence) or DWI (driving while intoxicated) charge.
Of course, many other intoxicated drivers behave recklessly, endanger others, or get into an accident. But even someone who cautiously drives home while a little “buzzed” is at risk of this serious charge that can lead to up to six months of jail time, license loss or restriction, two years of probation, and up to a $500 fine.
The difference between DWI and DUI charges
DUI and DWI are often used interchangeably in casual conversation, but their legal definitions differ depending on the state where the charges originate. In some states, a DUI refers to driving while under the influence of a drug or illicit substance, whereas a DWI is specific to alcohol. In other states, a DWI can refer to a charge when drinking and driving or other drugs, but a DUI is a more specific charge for driving while over the legal BAC (blood alcohol content) limit.
In Missouri, for example, although the terms DUI and DWI are used interchangeably in common speech, DUI isn’t used at all in legal terms. Officially, the charge you receive for driving while impaired by alcohol is a DWI, while driving under the influence of drugs can result in a DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) charge.
Some northeastern states even use another term, such as OUI (operating under the influence) or OWI (operating while intoxicated).
The terminology around a DUI/DWI and the severity of charges can be confusing. If you are faced with a DUI/DWI charge, it is important to consult with a lawyer who is familiar with your state’s specific laws and terminology.
Effects of alcohol on the body
When you reach a blood alcohol of about .02 BAC, which results from about two average-sized drinks, your body goes through changes that seriously affect your ability to drive. At this low level of intoxication, you may feel more relaxed and at ease while driving, but you also lose inhibitions and your mind slows down, reducing your ability to multitask, visually follow objects, or react to unexpected situations.
At four drinks in, as you near the .08 BAC legal limit, your ability to concentrate is severely diminished, your mind struggles to properly process information, and your self-control and reasoning skills are impaired.
If you stack one more drink onto this, your impairment will be amplified greatly. What are normally simple tasks, like keeping proper distance from other vehicles, braking, and staying in your lane will become a struggle. Your ability to react to hazards and think about your actions is severely diminished.
Alcohol has a serious effect on drivers — in fact, approximately 1 in 3 traffic deaths in the U.S. involve intoxication.
Substances beyond alcohol
When we think about a DUI, most of us automatically think of alcohol, but in Missouri there is also a DUID (driving under the influence of drugs) charge. This charge is similar to a DWI and refers to being under the influence of any intoxicating drug.
That doesn’t just mean illegal substances; some prescription and over the counter drugs can also cause impairment, even if you take them under the care of a doctor. Valium, for example, works as a tranquilizer and can impair your abilities to levels that mirror a person who’s well over the legal BAC limit. Even common medicines like allergy pills and nasal decongestants that can cause drowsiness or dizziness should not be taken when driving
Driving while intentionally high, whether it is from an illegal drug or medical marijuana, is another road to a DUID. Marijuana can slow your reaction times and impair brain function, making driving difficult.
Watercraft and beyond
Driving a car, truck, or motorcycle isn’t the only way to get a DWI. In fact, it’s illegal to operate anything classified as a vehicle while intoxicated. So, in some states where bicycles are bound to traffic laws, you can even get a DWI while cycling.
When it comes to DWIs, you don’t even have to be actively driving. If you are in a vehicle and could start moving at any time, you are at risk of being charged with a DWI.
These rules apply to watercraft as well. While many enjoy taking their boats out on the lake for a day of sun, fun, fishing, and brews, operating a boat under the influence can have consequences that are just as serious as those from operating a motor vehicle while impaired. Drinking while boating is dangerous: it is the cause of approximately 27% of all boating crashes and increases risks of death from drowning.
How do officers spot drunk drivers?
Officers are trained to spot drunk drivers while monitoring traffic. You may feel like you’re a great driver when you have been drinking, but many intoxicated drivers are known to:
- Suddenly swerve or have difficulty staying in their lane
- Turn widely and almost hit other objects or vehicles
- Overcompensate for their impairment by driving unusually slowly
- Stop suddenly or leave illogical distances between cars
- Randomly stop or seem to not understand traffic signs or signals
- Drive around after dark without headlights on
How to drink responsibly
If you are planning to attend a party or gathering where you expect to drink, and you’re driving yourself, there are some ways to stay safe. Of course, the best possible plan is to either not drink at all or to arrange for ride service or another mode of transportation.
Still, if you do want to drink, but you want to make sure to do so responsibly, here are a few tips:
- Limit drinking to one glass of wine or beer or one single-shot cocktail per hour, maximum — it can help to choose a beverage that you like to savor, such as a stout or porter ale
- Remember that smaller people process alcohol more quickly, so adjust down if you weigh less than average (and don’t assume you can drink more if you’ve heavier than average)
- Don’t start drinking on an empty stomach — make sure you’ve had a full meal, and continue to snack throughout the evening
- Take it slowly, checking in with yourself whenever your glass is empty to see how you feel and if you really want another drink
- Alternate alcoholic beverages with water, to stay hydrated and pace yourself
How to know if you’re over the limit
If you haven’t used any drugs, prescription or otherwise, and you’ve been drinking a responsible amount over a long period of time, you may be within the legal limit to drive home — of course, if you’re not sure, you should always find alternate means of transportation.
The only way to be absolutely certain you’re fit to drive is to test your BAC. Personal breathalyzers like those sold by BACTrack aren’t cheap, but it may be worth the money to purchase if you are not abstaining from drinking and if you’ve gotten a DUI or DWI before and need to be extra careful, but you’re unwilling to abstain.
Self-administered ‘tests’ like tongue twisters, touching your nose with your eyes closed, or walking in a perfectly straight line aren’t good enough. If you have any doubt at all about your capacity (or even just your legal right) to drive home, don’t get behind the wheel.
Avoiding a DWI
The simplest way to avoid a DWI or DUI is to not drive if you’re planning on drinking. Plan your night ahead to ensure you won’t give in to the tempting convenience of driving home. The best plans are often the simplest and include:
- Finding a friend to be a designated driver
- Taking a taxi or rideshare to and from the event
- Utilizing public transit when possible
- Drinking at establishments that are an easy walk from your home
- Staying over at a nearby friend’s house that’s walking distance from the party or bar
- Abstaining from drinking when you’re out alone and you’ve driven yourself
Consequences for a DWI
The consequences for a DWI are meant to dissuade people from getting into the car while under the influence, so they may seem shockingly severe. A first-time offense can lead to a 90-day license suspension, a fine of up to $1,000, a class B misdemeanor charge, and possible jail or probation.
Even if it is your first offense, if your blood alcohol content is more than .15%, you must go to jail for at least 48 hours. If your blood alcohol content is at .2% or higher, you must serve at least five days in jail.
A second offense often sees you lose your driving privileges for one year and a third offense could see your license revoked for up to 5 years, as well as being forced to use an ignition interlock device once your license is reinstated. Second offenses can also lead to heavy fines and possible jail time or probation.
What to do if you are charged with a DWI
When charged with a DWI or DUI, you can face high fees, revocation of your license, probation, and jail time or prison. You may also be asked to participate in alcohol or drug prevention programs and victim impact programs, be forced to install an ignition interlock device in your vehicle and live with a serious crime on your record.
If you were arrested for a DWI or DUI, don’t delay. An experienced attorney can help you evaluate your options.