Historical DWI/DUI Fast-Facts

Below are some key dates, time periods, inventions, research, advocacy and interest groups surrounding the history and development of drunk-driving laws in the United States.

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 DWI/DUI laws simply 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, as a result of 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 the 1980s, the federal National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) funded a study through the Southern California Research Institute (SCRI). The study involved in-depth research of the many field sobriety tests used by police departments across the United States, and their relative effectiveness, to help determine the impairment of motorists. The results of the study, and subsequent follow-up studies, identified the 3 most effective (roadside) Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs), when undertaken properly, that police nationwide use to assist in determining the Blood Alcohol Concentration (B.A.C.) of impaired motorists. They were identified as the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), the Walk and Turn (WAT), and the One Leg Stand (OLS) tests.

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.

In 2012, Alabama became the last state in the U.S. to pass and execute an ignition interlock law for those arrested and/or convicted of impaired driving.

Source: LifeSafer