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Last updated: December 8, 2023

DUI 101: Complete Guide

Everything you need to know about driving under the influence

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You may think drinking at a party and then driving home, even a short distance, isn’t a big deal. However, not only is driving under the influence (DUI) dangerous, but it’s also illegal in every state. The penalties for DUIs are vast, ranging from fines to community service to driver’s license suspension to imprisonment. While your best bet is to always drive sober, here’s essential information on DUIs.

What is a DUI Offense?

A DUI offense is when a person has broken the law by driving over the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Blood Alcohol Concentration Test

Also known as a preliminary alcohol screening (PAS), blood alcohol level test, blood alcohol content, ethanol test or ethyl alcohol test, a BAC test measures the amount of alcohol in your system.

How It’s Measured

BAC tests can occur in two different ways:

  • Breathalyzer test: Also known as a chemical test, if you get pulled over on suspicion of a DUI, the police officer will test your breath for alcohol typically.
  • Blood test: Measuring the amount of alcohol in your blood sample is more accurate than a breathalyzer test, but typically, you’ll have to go back to the police station to have your blood taken.


Alcohol can stay in your blood for up to 12 hours after drinking.

Legal Limits

To drive legally in the United States, you must have a BAC under 0.08 percent, the legal and medical limit of intoxication.1

Level of intoxication Blood alcohol concentration
Sober 0.00%
Legally intoxicated 0.08%
Very impaired 0.08%-0.40%
At risk for serious complications Above 0.40%

For those under the age of 21, such as teen drivers, laws are even more strict when it comes to DUIs, with lower legal limits and harsher penalties.

Your Rights During a DUI Incident

Hopefully, you never get stopped for a DUI, but if you do, remember your legal rights.

  • Right to remain silent: The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives you the right to remain silent, meaning you don’t have to answer the police officer’s questions.
  • Right to refuse the field sobriety test: A field sobriety test (FST) occurs before the BAC test. It’s a voluntary, more subjective way of determining if someone is sober or not. Typically, the FST is composed of three parts:
    • Walk and turn, where the driver has to walk heel-to-toe for nine steps, then return to their original location the same way.
    • One-leg stand, where the driver needs to lift one leg 6 inches off the ground and hold it for at least 30 seconds without losing their balance.
    • Gaze test, where the driver has to follow an object with their eyes as the police officer moves it around.

      If the driver is unable to do any of these tests, it’s an indication of intoxication.2 While you have the right to refuse the FST, you’ll then have to take the BAC test instead, so it’s not a “get out of jail free” card.

  • Right to choose your BAC test: If you’re driving on U.S. roads, you’re legally required to take a BAC test if a police officer requests it. However, you have the right to refuse a BAC blood test as they are much more invasive than breathalyzer tests, which are required.3

Mistakes to Avoid During a DUI Incident

Whatever you do, if you get stopped for a suspected DUI, don’t make the following mistakes.

  1. Arguing with the officer: Be compliant with the officer’s demands and stay polite and respectful.
  2. Making excuses: Don’t excuse your driving or speak ambiguously. Your words could be used against you in a court of law.
  3. Admitting guilt: You don’t want to admit guilt at all, as even the best defense attorney will have trouble dealing with such evidence in a DUI case.
  4. Saying too much: Your best bet is to stay silent or speak as little as possible. You never know if something you say could jeopardize your legal risk.

How to Avoid a DUI Conviction

Of course, the best way to avoid a DUI conviction is to drive sober. However, if it’s too late for that, you can avoid a DUI conviction either by taking a plea bargain or employing a great DUI attorney with a strong defense. Whichever route you choose, take advantage of free consultations at multiple law firms to find a quality DUI attorney.

Plea Bargain

Pleading guilty to a less serious charge, such as reckless driving, may be able to reduce your DUI charge, a process known as charge bargaining. A charge bargain is most effective if it’s your first DUI offense, you have a clean or nearly clean criminal background or you had a low BAC at the time of the arrest. It’s also more likely to succeed if you’re over the age of 21 and did not cause an accident.

Strong Legal Defense

The other option is having a strong legal defense, such as:

  • The traffic stop wasn’t supported by probable cause, making it illegal.
  • The police officer didn’t conduct the FST or calibrate the breathalyzer properly.
  • Your BAC was below 0.08 percent, the legal limit.4

DUI Laws by State

Each state has different laws surrounding DUIs, including how long your license will be suspended for the first offense and penalties for the second, third and subsequent offenses. Find your state’s laws surrounding alcohol-impaired driving on the Governors Highway Safety Association website, linked in the citations below.5

Penalties for Driving Under the Influence

Legal punishments are far from the only consequence of driving under the influence, but they can be severe.


Legal penalties can include jail time, fines, community service hours, license suspension and a DUI ignition interlock device — a breathalyzer that would test your BAC before you can start your car. If you cause a fatality, your legal consequences will be more extreme, but even on a first offense, you’ll likely face a license suspension at the very least.

The state may also require you to get an SR-22 form (proof you have minimum insurance) or, in Florida and Virginia, an FR-44 form (proof you have more than the minimum).


Finding affordable car insurance with an SR-22 or FR-44 is more difficult as it means you’re a high-risk driver, which raises your rates. When shopping the market, check out our recommendations for the best auto insurance with a DUI on your record.

Financial Cost

Between fines, attorney and department of motor vehicle (DMV) fees, interlock devices and more, a DUI could end up costing you anywhere from $4,500 to $14,000, depending on the severity of the offense and the number of the offense.6 Keep in mind that car insurance won’t cover these costs as a DUI is considered to be reckless or negligent driving, so you’ll have to pay for these expenses out of pocket.

Consequence Cost range
Court-ordered fines $1,000-$1,500
Attorney fees $1,500-$10,000
DMV fees $100-$150
Ignition interlock device $500-$1,500
SR-22 insurance $1,000-$5,000
DUI classes $250-$500
Towing $100-$300
Bail $100-$200
Estimated total $4,500-$14,000


For certain occupations, such as rideshare driver, school bus driver or commercial driver, a DUI conviction will prevent you from getting a job, as they require a clean criminal history. A DUI conviction could also result in a suspension of licenses for nurses, teachers, lawyers, doctors and pilots.

However, first-time DUI offenders who complete substance abuse programs should be able to get their DUI expunged from their record so it won’t show up in a criminal record or background check. Still, many job applications ask you if you’ve ever had any criminal convictions, so you may report it yourself, which could affect your chances of getting a job.7

Driving Record

In every state except Texas, Vermont, Kansas and Delaware, DUIs will disappear from your record after a certain number of years. After this point, the cost of your car insurance should return to normal.

Car Insurance

That said, DUIs do affect car insurance rates. As long as the DUI is on your record, insurance companies will view you as a substandard or high-risk driver who is more likely to file claims. To protect themselves against losses, insurance companies will charge you higher premiums preemptively.

DUI Abbreviations

Learning about DUIs can feel a bit like wading through alphabet soup. DUI, DWI, OUI, OWI — what’s the difference?

The two most common abbreviations states use are DUI and DWI. While DUI stands for driving under the influence, DWI stands for driving while intoxicated and is a more serious charge. A driver convicted of a DUI offense was less impaired than someone convicted of a DWI offense. However, not every state distinguishes between the two and some use DUI as meaning under the influence of drugs specifically.8

Some less commonly used abbreviations include the following:

  • DUID: Driving under the influence of drugs
  • DWAI: Driving while ability impaired
  • OMVI: Operating a motor vehicle while impaired
  • OUI: Operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor
  • OVI: Operating a vehicle while intoxicated
  • OVUII: Operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant
  • OWPD: Operating with the presence of drugs
  • OWVI: Operating while visibly impaired

Impaired Driving Abbreviations by State

What abbreviations does your state use? Find out below.

State Abbreviation for impaired driving charge
Alabama DUI
Alaska DUI
Arizona DUI
Arkansas DWI/DUI (underage drivers with BACs under .08)
California DUI/DUID
Colorado DUI/DWAI
Connecticut OUI
Delaware DUI
Florida DUI
Georgia DUI
Idaho DUI
Illinois DUI
Indiana OWI/DUI
Iowa OWI
Kansas DUI
Kentucky DUI/DWI
Louisiana DWI/DUI
Maine OUI
Maryland DUI/DWI
Massachusetts OUI
Minnesota DWI
Mississippi DUI
Missouri DWI
Montana DUI
Nebraska DUI
Nevada DUI
New Hampshire DWI
New Jersey DUI/DWI
New Mexico DWI
North Carolina DWI
North Dakota DUI
Ohio OVI
Oklahoma DUI
Oregon DUII
Pennsylvania DUI
Rhode Island DUI
South Carolina DUI
South Dakota DUI
Tennessee DUI
Texas DWI
Utah DUI
Vermont DUI
Virginia DUI
Washington DUI
Washington, D.C. DUI/DWI
West Virginia DUI
Wisconsin OWI
Wyoming DUI

DUI Statistics

Check out our roundup of drunk driving statistics to find out where DUIs are most common and who drives under the influence the most. Some particularly noteworthy stats to keep in mind include the following:

  • Thirty-two people in the U.S. die every day from drunk driving.
  • In 2020, 11,654 people died in alcohol-impaired traffic deaths, a 14 percent increase from 2019.
  • Drunk driving is involved in nearly a third of traffic fatalities in the U.S.9
  • Montana is the state with the highest proportion of alcohol-impaired traffic fatalities — 67 percent of traffic deaths in 2020 involved a drunk driver.
  • Drivers ages 25 to 34 have the highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths, making up 57 percent of the total across all age groups.


If you’ve been convicted of a DUI, check out our picks for the best high-risk auto insurance. While there’s no easy way to avoid rate hikes, you can save money by shopping the entire market for a substandard provider — a company that caters to high-risk drivers. Learn more about DUIs below.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the four phases of DUI detection?

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s DWI detection participant manual for law enforcement officers, there are only three phases of DUI detection. They are as follows:

  1. Vehicle in motion: The police officer observes the vehicle in motion and determines whether to stop it or not. They also observe the stopping.
  2. Personal contact: The officer observes and speaks to the driver. They may ask the driver to step away from the vehicle, seeing how they exit and walk.
  3. Pre-arrest screening: The officer gives the driver a field sobriety test (FST) to determine if there is probable cause for the driver to be arrested for DUI. During this phase, the officer may administer or arrange a breath test to determine the driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC).

What is the best case for a first-time DUI?

The best-case scenario for a first-time DUI is that you only have your license suspended for a certain period and have limited driving privileges during this time, such as commuting to work. Ideally, you won’t have to use an ignition interlock device and face a steep fine or have to take driver’s education classes.

What is the worst punishment for a DUI?

The worst punishment for a DUI is imprisonment. However, this will usually only happen with repeat offenders or vehicular manslaughter.

Can drunk driving charges be dropped?

Drunk driving charges can be dropped if you take a plea bargain or have a strong legal defense for your actions.


  1. Blood Alcohol Level. Medline Plus, National Library of Medicine. (2023).

  2. Refusing a Field Sobriety Test in a DUI Stop. Justia. (2023).

  3. Birchfield v. North Dakota – 136 S. Ct. 2160 (2016). LexisNexis. (2016).

  4. How to get a DUI dropped to reckless driving – Best 2 ways. Shouse California Law Group. (2022, Jan 21).

  5. Alcohol Impaired Driving. Governors Highway Safety Association. (2023).

  6. Learn the Costs of a DUI. (2023).

  7. Can I Get a Job With a DUI Conviction on My Record? AllLaw. (2023).

  8. DUI and DWI Overview. NOLO. (2023).

  9. Drunk Driving. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2023).