First drunk driver: Sept. 10, 1897
A London taxi driver named George Smith has the dubious distinction of being the first person to be charged with drunk driving. Only a month after the city’s cabbies start using electric-powered cars, Smith drives his cab into a building. He freely admits he’s drunk and later pleads guilty and pays a fine of 25 shillings.
It was lucky for the police that Smith was so forthcoming because they had no way of proving scientifically that he was too drunk to drive. In 1910, New York became the first state in the U.S. to prohibit driving while intoxicated, followed soon by California, but police still had no way of determining how drunk was too drunk.
Fortunately, the first big boom in car sales in the U.S. came during the 1920s, when the country had a nationwide ban on the sale of alcohol. But when Prohibition ended in 1933, a lot of public officials worried that drunk driving would skyrocket. Scientists had determined that the key was to be able to measure the level of alcohol in a driver’s blood, but what was needed was a way to get a reading immediately, at the scene, instead of driving him or her to a doctor to have a blood test done.
An Indiana University professor named Rolla Harger came up with a solution in 1936 when he patented a device he called the “drunkometer.” It was designed to be deliberately simple—all the suspected drinker had to do was blow into a balloon. The police officer then attached the balloon to a tube filled with purple fluid (potassium permanganate and sulfuric acid) and released the air inside of it. If a person had alcohol on his breath, the fluid changed from purple to yellow, and the faster it changed, the drunker the person was. In fact, a dramatic change in color was often enough to make people admit on the spot how much they had drunk.
In 1938, committees from the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council agreed that a person with a blood alcohol level of .15 should be considered inebriated, and that became the standard for most drunk driving laws.
For all of its benefits, the drunkometer was cumbersome and required some calculation to determine how drunk a person was. In 1954, a former Indiana State Police officer named Robert Borkenstein raised drunk driver testing to another level with his invention of the “Breathalyzer.” It was smaller and more accurate than the drunkometer and also did the necessary calculations automatically. Plus, it was even harder for a determined driver to beat, although some went to great lengths to try. One Canadian driver actually started eating his underwear before taking a Breathalyzer test because he thought the cotton would absorb the alcohol.
Still, drunk driving laws weren’t strictly enforced until the 1980s when a group called Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, was formed to pressure police to crack down. The founder of MADD was a California woman named Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver who had three previous DUI convictions and was out on bail from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.
Campaigns by MADD and other groups helped get the minimum legal drinking age in the U.S. raised to 21 and also lower the blood alcohol limit to .10 from .15. In 1992, in response to a recommendation from the National Traffic Safety Administration, states lowered the limit again, this time to .08.
Unfortunately, drunk driving continues to be a problem—it’s still the cause of almost one third of all traffic fatalities, and just below 20 percent of the deaths in car crashes for children under 14.