Driving while intoxicated is one of the deadliest mistakes a driver can make. Driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs and/or alcohol is a serious act of recklessness that is against the law in all 50 states. In 2017, 1,024 people died in motor vehicle accidents involving drunk driving in Texas. DUI laws have evolved over the years, starting in New York in 1910. Arrests for driving drunk, however, began before the first laws specifically prohibited DUI.
On November 24th, 1897, a man named George Smith became the first-ever driver police arrested for driving drunk. Smith was a 25-year-old taxi driver living in London who smashed his taxicab into a building while under the influence of alcohol. Smith pled guilty to the charge and had to pay 25 shillings as his punishment. Thus, the first-ever DUI arrest set the stage for thousands like it over the next 100 years.
New York was the very first state to enact official laws banning drunk driving in 1910. This was the year state lawmakers passed legislation that made it illegal to operate a vehicle while intoxicated. Law enforcement did not have tests to prove drunk driving until years later. Instead, they used their best judgment to determine a driver’s drunkenness. California became the second state to pass DUI laws, leading to several other states enacting similar legislation. Early state laws lacked specific language defining drunk driving, however.
It was not until 1936 that a scientist named Dr. Rolla Harger created a device to effectively test for inebriation. His invention – aptly named the Drunkometer – came after several years of growing national concern regarding drunk driving. In the early 1930s, the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council funded research into the most common causes of car accidents. Their research helped promote safer vehicle operation. It also shaped what would become the first more specific DUI laws.
The Drunkometer opened the doors to DUI testing and more accuracy for arrests. Dr. Harger’s device had a type of balloon attached to it that drivers would breathe into, similar to today’s Breathalyzer tests. The Drunkometer used the breath to accurately measure how much alcohol content was in the driver’s blood. The advent of the Drunkometer, on top of safety panels by national organizations, led to the official suggestion of 0.15 as the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level that proved a driver was drunk – almost twice what the legal amount is today.
In 1953, the Breathalyzer came into existence thanks to a professor and police captain named Robert Borkenstein. Borkenstein had worked with Dr. Rolla Harger on creating the early breath test device, the Drunkometer, and created the Breathalyzer to streamline and improve the process. He created the easier-to-use Breathalyzer test that became the first scientific measure available to police officers.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, many state lawmakers changed their laws to reflect increasing knowledge on the dangers of drunk driving. Special groups formed to fight for stricter DUI laws, often after fatal accidents took the lives of loved ones. One such group was Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), founded by mother Candy Lightner in California after the DUI-related death of her 13-year-old daughter. Groups like MADD were – and still are – instrumental in influencing lawmakers to pass stricter DUI laws.
The legal limit for DUI is now 0.08 in all 50 states. Most states have also passed Zero Tolerance laws on drunk drivers under the legal drinking age of 21, plus stricter 0.04 BAC limits for commercial drivers. The laws regarding how lawmakers enforce and punish DUIs vary from state to state. Unfortunately, drunk driving is still a considerable issue that takes thousands of lives every year. The fight against drunk drivers is constant.