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The first known arrest for driving drunk occurred on September 10, 1897, in London, England, just months after the first motorized taxis replaced horse-drawn carriages. George Smith was charged with drunk driving after he crashed his cab into a building. He pled guilty and paid a 25 shilling fine–equivalent to about a month’s rent. Today, laws prohibiting driving under the influence (DUI) cover much more than just alcohol and carry much steeper penalties.

Unfortunately, because states adopted laws separately and at different times, they called the offense formerly known simply as “drunk driving” by different names. These include “driving while impaired” (DWI) and “operating under the influence” (OUI)–among many others. This article will review some of the differences among state laws prohibiting impaired driving and explain what some common statutory terms mean.

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What Is Drunk Driving?

The first U.S. laws against drinking and driving were passed in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, they were difficult to enforce: There was no way to objectively test whether a driver was drunk. In 1936, a professor of biochemistry and toxicology patented the “Drunkometer,” a device that measured the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath. A more reliable testing device, the “Breathalyzer,” was invented in 1953.

These tools helped law enforcement arrest drivers whose blood alcohol (BAC) limits were at levels correlating to impairment. However, some states had BAC limits as high as .15 percent until the 1980s, when tougher laws were adopted across the nation. Today, the maximum allowable BAC for a driver in any state is .08 percent (.02 percent for drivers under 21, and .05 percent in Utah). Most states also specifically prohibit driving under the influence of drugs or intoxicants.

State laws have a hodgepodge of different terms for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The subtle differences between them can be very important. So what is a DUI, and what do all the other terms mean?

Alphabet Soup: DUI, DWI, OUI Meanings

In general, the most common acronyms are short for the following:

  • DWI. Driving while intoxicated
  • OWI.Operating while intoxicated
  • DUI. Driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicants
  • OUI or OVI. Operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or other intoxicants
  • DUII. Driving under the influence of intoxicants
  • OVUII. Operating a vehicle under the influence of intoxicants
  • DWAI. Driving while ability impaired

All states (and some municipalities) have laws regulating driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which vary significantly. Some of the main differences are as follows.

Driving Vs. Operating

Early statutes generally prohibited driving a vehicle after consuming more than a certain amount of alcohol. Some jurisdictions enacted statutes that prohibit operating a motor vehicle. In some places, this is a distinction without a difference, and the words are used interchangeably. Other states interpret the word “operate” much more broadly, not limiting its application to situations where the car actually moves.

For example, say you are over the limit and take refuge in a snowbound car during a blizzard. If you turn the key to operate the heat you may be breaking the law, even if the car is not moving. In some places, merely sitting (or sleeping) in a car while intoxicated can lead to OWI, OUI, or OVI charges. (This may become a significant issue if self-driving cars become widely accepted.) Sometimes, these are lesser charges with lower penalties, but this is not always the case.

General Vs. Specific Intoxicants

Some jurisdictions that already had laws specifically prohibiting drinking alcohol chose to pass separate DUII or OVUII laws to address the growing problem of intoxicants like opiates. Other places created or modified existing laws to encompass all situations where a driver is impaired from ingesting, smoking, or otherwise consuming a substance, whether legal or illegal.

Per Se Violations Vs. Observed Impairment

In states that have ‘per se’ prohibitions on driving after consuming alcohol, a driver with a BAC over the legal limit violates the law. They are considered legally intoxicated, even if they aren’t noticeably impaired or driving dangerously. However, in most places it is also illegal to drive while impaired by alcohol–at any BAC–or other substances. This can be the difference between DWI and DUI charges, if local law makes a distinction between intoxicated per se and observably impaired (under the influence).

The penalties that apply to DUI (driving under the influence) or DWAI (driving while ability impaired) charges may be less severe than those for DWI (driving while intoxicated), but they can still be significant. Convicting a driver on these charges can involve testimony from the arresting officer, evidence from field sobriety tests, results of toxicology screening and blood tests, and other witness testimony.

Don't DIY Your DUI

If you’ve been charged with any variation of driving under the influence, don’t take chances. Penalties can be swift and severe. An experienced attorney can help you understand the laws in your area and the best options to resolve your case.

Legal Disclaimer: This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation and should not be interpreted as creating an attorney-client relationship. If you have legal questions, you should seek the advice of an attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

Have you been charged with a DUI offense? Would you like more information about DUI laws across the U.S.? We’ve got you covered.

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