What Is OWI?

States Use Different Terms to Describe Drunk Driving

Wrecked Car
OWI Is Dangerous. © Getty Images

OWI is an acronym for operating while intoxicated, referring to a legal charge for drunken driving. For the most part, the acronym that indicates a drunk driving charge depends on the state in which you are driving.

Depending on the terminology the state's lawmakers used when creating their drunk driving laws, the charge could be referred to by the following acronyms:

  • DUI - Driving Under the Influence
  • DWI - Driving While Intoxicated
  • OUI - Operating Under the Influence While Impaired
  • OVI - Operating a Vehicle While Intoxicated
  • OWI - Operating While Intoxicated

Other acronyms are used to refer to charges related to the severity of the drunken driving charge:

  • ADWI - Aggravated Driving While Intoxicated
  • DUII-CS - Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants: Controlled Substances
  • DUII - Driving Under the Influence of Intoxicants
  • DWAI - Driving While Ability Impaired
  • OMVI - Operating a Motor Vehicle While Impaired
  • OUII - Operating Under the Influence of intoxicating liquor

DUI Is the Most Common Term

The most common acronym used for drunken driving is DUI, which is used in most states for driving under the influence.

States that use the term DWI include Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Louisiana, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Texas and West Virginia.

The following terms are used in the states listed below:

  • OWI - Indiana, Iowa
  • OUI - Massachusetts, Rhode Island
  • OVI - Ohio
  • DUII - Oregon

Some States Use Multiple Terms

Some jurisdictions use more than one of the above acronyms to refer to varying levels of severity of the crime and different levels of punishment. For example, some states use DUI to charge someone driving with a blood-alcohol content over the legal limit, but use DWI (driving while impaired) to charge someone who was obviously impaired but not over the legal BAC limit.

In the District of Columbia, for example, drivers can be charged with DWI, DUI and OWI. The DWI charge is for cases where the driver was tested and had a BAC of 0.08 or higher. The police do not have to prove the driver was impaired.

Impaired, But Not Legally Drunk

A DUI charged in Washington, D.C. usually means there is no proof that the driver had a BAC over the legal limit - perhaps the driver refused a breath test - but other evidence proved that he was impaired - such as field sobriety tests or observations by the arresting officer.

A charge of OWI in the District means that the prosecution can prove the driver was driving under the influence of any amount of alcohol, but does not have to prove the driver was impaired or legally intoxicated. In D.C., this charge carries the lowest penalties.

Intoxication Effects More Than Driving

Also, in some jurisdictions, OWI is used in cases in which "driving" was not involved, but the operator was intoxicated while operating a boat, heavy equipment or carrying out some other function.

As lawmakers across the United States begin to deal with the growing problem of drugged driving - driving under the influence of a drug, illegal or prescription - they are rewriting their laws to meet the new challenges.

Laws Are Changing Across the U.S.

Consequently, some states may come up with a batch of new acronyms to refer to various charges of operating while intoxicated, or they may move toward using more generalized terms to refer to driving while "impaired" - meaning under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

More states may join the majority by using DUI - driving under the influence - because it could refer to the influence of either alcohol or drugs.

It Is a Serious Offense

No matter what they call it where you are arrested for impaired driving, it is a serious offense carrying penalties that are increasing in severity across the country, as states continue to try to reduce the number of injuries and deaths on the highways.

Whether it's called a DUI, DWI or OWI, a conviction for drunken driving will cost you a staggering amount of money, immediately and in the long term. It can also cost you indirectly because it might restrict the jobs you are able to get with a DUI conviction on your record.

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