The DUI Just Turned 119 Years Old


A little over 119 years ago, on September 10, 1897, the DUI was born. A London taxi driver named George Smith crashed his cab into a building and it was suspected that he had been drinking. He pled guilty and was fined 25 shillings, the modern equivalent to 40 British pounds or 67 US dollars.

Voila, the first DUI arrest and conviction.

The DUI made its first appearance in the United States in 1910 when New York became the first state to adopt a law against driving under the influence of alcohol.

At that time, there was no way for law enforcement to know exactly how drunk a person was. Therefore, the arrest and subsequent prosecution was based solely on the subjective observations of the arresting police officer.

It was not until 1938 that we began to develop a way to test how drunk a driver was. Indiana University professor, Rolla Harger, developed what called a “drunk-o-meter.” A person would blow into a balloon through a tube containing chemicals. If the breath contained alcohol, it would mix with the chemicals and create a color in the balloon. The more the alcohol, the greater the color change.

A year later in 1939, Indiana became the first state to pass a law that made it illegal to drive with a specific blood alcohol content. At that time, the legal limit was 0.15 percent.

Eventually, a more portable and accurate device for measuring blood alcohol content was developed in 1954 by Robert Borkenstein. It later became known as the breathalyzer.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, DUI laws and legislations took a shift in the United States as drunk driving concerns took the forefront of public awareness.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) was founded in 1980 and has pushed for stricter DUI laws since.

In 2000 the federal government adopted a national goal of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content and required that states adopt such a standard by 2004 in order to continue to receive federal highway funding. All states soon adopted the 0.08 percent per se limit.

As our understanding of intoxicants and driving evolve and our beliefs about drunk driving change, so do DUI laws.

Earlier this year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states lower the BAC limit to 0.05. Whether states follow the recommendation is yet to be seen.

It was recently announced that California began testing the first marijuana breathalyzer. Only time will tell how DUI laws might be affected by the new technology.

Until then, here’s to another year, DUI!

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