The DUI Turns 117 Years Old


117 years ago on September 10, the first drunk ever drunk driving arrest was made. For those of you who are bad at math like me, that makes the year 1897. George Smith, a London taxi driver, drunkenly crashed his taxi into a building. He was arrested fined a whopping 25 shillings making it the first DUI arrest in history. His fines, by today’s standards, would be about 40 British pounds, which is about 67 US dollars.

It didn’t take long after Smith’s DUI arrest for DUI laws to make their way to the United States. Until recently, it was widely accepted that in 1910, New York became the first stated to adopt a DUI law. However in December of 2013, an article from the Detroit Free Press dating back to December 22, 1907, suggests that Massachusetts was actually the first state to adopt a DUI law. “It is interesting to note that Massachusetts has taken the initiative against those motorists who drive while in an intoxicated condition by revoking their licenses….[They] rightly should be prevented by law against risking the lives of others. Motorists as a body, will commend this action by the Massachusetts legislature.”

Regardless of which state was beaten to the punch, at the time, there was no real way to determine that a driver was in an “intoxicated condition.” Rather, law enforcement officers could only make a subjective determination that a person was intoxicated.

That changed in 1938 when Indiana University professor Rolla Harger sought to invent a device that would tell law enforcement how drunk someone was. Harger’s “drunk-o-meter,” as it was called, attempted to quantify intoxication. The person being tested would blow into a balloon. The balloon was then attached a tube containing chemicals and the air released. The alcohol in the air would react to the chemicals and create a color. The higher the alcohol content, the greater the change in color.

The following year, Indiana became the first states to pass a law that made it illegal to drive with a specific blood alcohol content. At the time, the legal limit was 0.15 percent. This number was the result of a committee by the American Medical Association and a study by the National Safety Council determining that a person with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or higher could be presumed to be intoxicated.

Harger’s drunk-o-meter became the predecessor to more evolved versions of, what is modernly referred to as the “breathalyzer.” In 1954, Robert Borkenstein, who collaborated with Harger, developed the prototype for modern-day breathalyzers.

Following the invention of the breathalyzer, the United States saw a surge in the fight against drunk driving. The formation of groups like Mother Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) and Students Against Drunk Driving (S.A.D.D.) in the 1980’s created a public awareness about the dangers of drunk driving. In response, state legislatures reduced the blood alcohol limit from 0.15 percent to 0.10 percent. Eventually all states would adopt the current legal limit of 0.08.

Since their inception, DUI laws have been ever-evolving. Recently the National Transportation Safety Board called on all 50 states to lower the blood alcohol content limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Who knows what changes we might see in future DUI laws. However, one thing is certain: the DUI certainly has grown up since 1897.

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