21 Feb
Posted in: Miscellaneous
By    No Comments

History of Drunk Driving Laws

December is National Impaired Driving Month. April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Since the early 1990s, we’ve all become much more aware of the dangers of alcohol and impaired driving. Laws have gotten tougher and driving while impaired is no longer socially acceptable.

We all know that driving while impaired is dangerous, not just for the driver but also for anyone who encounters him. It’s likely to be expensive, and getting caught behind the wheel while impaired can result in legal bills, fines, loss of driving privileges, and even jail time. Certainly your car insurance rates increase after a DUI.

We’ll look at the roles that inventors, politicians, lobbying groups, and car insurance companies have played in trying to make driving safer, and what the results have been.

Early Need for Laws Against Drunk Driving

History’s first drunk driving arrest was made in London in 1897 when a London cab driver crashed into a building after leaving a pub.

A few years later, the state of New Jersey created the first drunk driving laws in the U.S. The 1906 law stated that no intoxicated person shall drive a motor vehicle, and the penalty was quite steep: $500 fine or 60 days in jail. In 1910 New York passed a similar law, and all other states followed in the next few years.

While these laws did make intoxicated driving against the law, they did not set a definition for “being intoxicated.” Failure to define the state of intoxication made the laws difficult to enforce, as there was no way to determine a driver’s level of intoxication. And by the early 1920s, as the country emerged from WWI, society was changing.

Prohibition and the 1920s

With the end of the first World War, the influenza pandemic began to ease and income inequality became more pronounced. Society was changing.

The temperance movement got stronger and contrasted with the roaring social scene of the flapper era. Women’s skirts got shorter, cars got faster and suffragettes wore bright red lipstick with bobbed hairstyles.

As society reeled from all these changes, Congress pushed through the 18th amendment, overriding the president’s veto. Known as the Volstead Act, the new law made alcohol prohibition the law of the land.

Prohibition drove alcohol sales underground, which allowed criminal gangs to control the supply and sales of alcohol in most areas of the country.

As people ignored this law, it became increasingly socially acceptable to ignore and organized-crime-related violence increased. Public opposition to prohibition became overwhelming. Prohibition was repealed in 1933. This led to the sale of legal beer and wine with up to 3.2% alcohol by volume (ABV), at a time when more cars were on the roads.

In 1936 the earliest breathalyzer was invented by Dr. Rollo Harger, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Indiana Medical School. The drunkometer was a balloon-like device people breathed into to determine intoxication.

By 1938, as a result of research by the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council, 0.15% became the first common legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

Enforcement Challenges

An improved version of the breath test device was developed in 1953 by Robert Borkenstein, a former police captain and university professor. The breathalyzer more easily measures the level of alcohol in a person’s blood. This device was easier to use and more accurate, making it the perfect test for police officers to use.

From the 1950s through the 1960s, law enforcement officers rarely enforced DUI laws, partly because enforcement rarely resulted in consequences. Reluctance to enforce the laws led to a backlash among public interest groups that advocated for stricter enforcement of DUI laws.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) eventually convinced some states to lower their BAC levels for DUIs to 0.10 percent. By the 1970s, federal and state governments moved to further prevent the spread of DUI-related traffic accidents across the U.S.

This led to the development and passage of “per se DUI laws” that allowed the state to convict for a DUI without proving that alcohol is what affected the driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. The state needed only to prove that a driver was operating a vehicle while the BAC was above the state’s legal limit.

Per se laws, combined with a growing public interest in preventing DUI-related deaths, helped increase the severity of penalties for drunk driving. Throughout the U.S., laws and penalties were increased starting in the late 1970s.

Beginning in the early 1990s, and largely due to actions from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD), zero-tolerance laws were enacted across the country. These new laws lowered the legal BAC for teenagers.

For drivers under 21, driving a vehicle with 0.01% or 0.02% BAC soon became a criminal offense. In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states lower the benchmark for determining when a driver is legally drunk from 0.08 blood-alcohol content to 0.05.

Preventing Impaired Driving

Conviction on a DUI charge will stay on your driving record for three to 10 years, depending on the state you live in. As a result of a DUI, you may be required to install an ignition interlock device on your vehicle. Your car insurance rates will increase for several years as well.

To be safe, it’s a good practice to plan for a designated driver on your next night out with friends. Safe social drinking requires having a plan.

In 1991 the term “designated driver” was accepted into the Random House Dictionary. Between 1988 and 1992, drunk-driving deaths dropped by almost one-quarter. The National Institutes of Health report alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined by nearly 50% since the early 1980s.

There is always the option to take a cab or rideshare, or alternate designated driver duties with friends. A good designated driver will be aware of the role ahead of time.

Don’t wait until alcohol consumption has begun and try to rely on whoever is the least drunk or who had the fewest drinks. Remember the designated driver has a responsibility to stay sober all night.

Once everyone starts drinking, it becomes much harder to make rational decisions. Consider taking turns being the designated driver so that no one feels resentful. Choose someone who can resist temptation and not drink.

Many bars or events will provide alcoholic-free beverages, or perks, to designated drivers. Check with different bars ahead of time about their policy.


Teresa Johnson writes and researches for the legal advice site, FreeAdvice.com. She earned a master of science degree in business management and researches on insurance and legal topics.

So, what do you think?