History of Drinking and Driving

As long as there have been motorized vehicles, there have been intoxicated drivers. Initially, without the high-tech equipment we have today it was difficult to prove someone was drunk. The determination was made solely by the arresting officer. It would be necessary that they take several things into careful consideration including how erratic the driving was and the driver’s behavior. Field Sobriety Tests (FST) also aided law enforcement. Imposing specific tests on suspects helped improve reliability and provide some stability to officer’s decisions. 

  • In 1910, New York was the first state to adopt a law against drinking and driving, with California and other states soon following. These early DUI laws simply history of drunk driving laws in the u.s.prohibited driving while intoxicated, but there was so set definition of what level of intoxication qualified as drunk driving.
  • In 1936, after the repeal of prohibition in 1933, Dr. Harger, an Indiana University professor of toxicology and biochemistry, patented the Drunkometer. The device was balloon-like and people breathed into it to determine intoxication. The color of the air, when mixed with a chemical solution, determined the amount of intoxication.
  • In 1938, thanks to research by the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council, 0.15 percent became the first commonly-used legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).
  • In 1953, Robert Borkenstein, a former police captain and university professor, invented the Breathalyzer. This machine used chemical oxidation and photometry to determine alcohol concentration. All a person would have to do is blow into the machine and it would measure the alcohol vapors in their breath. This would show the level of alcohol in their blood.  The Breathalyzer was easier to use and more accurate than the Drunkometer, which made it the perfect test for police officers to use when determining whether someone had too much to drink.
  • In 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or MADD, was founded by Candy Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter was killed on her way home from a school carnival by a drunk driver. The driver had three previous DUI convictions and was out on bail from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier. When MADD was founded in 1980, more than 21,000 people were killed in drunk driving crashes each year.  Lightner and MADD helped to change the public’s attitudes about drunk driving. The group pushed for tougher legislation for those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. MADD also successfully pushed to have the legal drinking age raised.
  • In 1984, The National Minimum Drinking Age Act required states to pass individual legislation raising the drinking age to 21.
  • In 1998, as part of TEA-21, a new Federal incentive grant was created to encourage states to adopt a .08 BAC illegal per se level.
  • In 2000, Congress adopted .08 BAC as the national illegal limit for impaired driving.