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Alcohol and Driving, the combination was destined to cause trouble from the very beginning.  Ever wonder who earned the first drunk driving arrest?  On September 10, 1897, a young, London taxi driver, George Smith, was charged a 25 shilling fine (about $5) for drunkenly driving his vehicle into a building. Mr. Smith’s mishap was the catalyst for establishing laws against drunk driving in the U.S., in the early 1900’s.  Laws against drunk driving have continued to evolve throughout the last 100 years and have greatly reduced accidents involving a drunk driver, but according to a Syracuse car accident lawyer, we are far from changing the way people drive, “Even though (states like) New York has tough laws to combat drunk driving, far too many drivers still get behind the wheel after they’ve had too much to drink.”  Legislation, law enforcement, and everyday people, affected by the irresponsible yet preventable actions of drunk driving, will not report that driving while intoxicated is under control until accidents, injuries, and deaths related to drunk driving cease.

The Early Years of Drunk Driving

According to the Library of Congress, in 1908, Henry Ford, wanting to make an automobile more accessible and affordable for the everyday person, introduced the infamous Model T.  The first price tag was a hefty $850, but as more cars were manufactured, the Model T truly became an affordable car, costing $260.  A couple years after Ford’s introduction of one of America’s top-selling vehicles, the first drunk driving laws were introduced in New York.

In 1910, the state of New York put a ban on drunk driving; simply stating that it was illegal for drivers to operate a vehicle while being intoxicated.  States followed suit and adopted the same law.  Once the laws were enacted, law officials and civilians, alike, hit a technical roadblock.  There was no official way to define or measure an intoxicated individual.  If a drunk driver was caught by an officer, who liked to have a stiff drink each evening, or caught by an officer, who was a teetotaler, the outcome would surely be different; based on a biased opinion rather than scientific proof.

People kept driving their new vehicles, some under the influence of alcohol, and there were little to no repercussions as official laws regarding the use of vehicles were not regulated or enacted.  From 1910 to the beginning of the Prohibition in 1920, drunk driving was recognized as an issue, but while it was considered unlawful, there was little change in legislature until after the Prohibition.

A Post-Prohibition World

Americans were prohibited from drinking alcohol and the task of measuring a person’s level of inebriation was put aside until the Prohibition ended in 1933 when Americans seemed to continue where they had left off years before.   Three years after the end of the Prohibition, a biochemistry professor, Dr. Harger, introduced his balloon device, “The Drunkometer”.  The device, created to measure levels of intoxication through breath, was the first “practical” test to measure drunk drivers.  Harger, continued to be a large presence in helping create drunk driving laws when he joined a committee of the National Safety Council that proposed a plan to legalize the use of evidence from chemical tests for intoxication and to set limits of BAC for drunk motorists, which later became included in drunk driving laws.  Legal intoxication, on a national level, was finally determined to be a BAC of 0.15 or higher and 20 years later; a more accurate device called a “Breathalyzer” was created to measure BAC.

Cracking Down on Drunk Drivers

After legislation settled on a BAC, drunk drivers could finally be held accountable for driving while intoxicated.  Legislative laws seemed to sit, stagnant, until a small group of mothers, mourning the loss of their children, presented the emotional picture of drunk driving accidents.  MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) has been instrumental in making waves in Congress.  The group of mothers, who had lost their children to a drunk driving incident, was fearless because they had nothing else to lose.

With MADD’s influence and involvement, President Regan announced the inception of the Presidential Commission of Drunk Driving in 1982.  In 1983, Congress passed numerous anti-drunk driving laws, and drunk driving was finally rearing its ugly head in public service announcements.  A big feat for the organization was helping to pass the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984 when the drinking age, nationwide, became 21.

Within the last 30 years, state laws slowly changed to lower the BAC from the long standing 0.15 to .10 to finally, in 2004, Congress passed a national law enforcing the legal limit of .08 or higher.

A Long Way to Go

Today, according to Governors Highway Safety Association, states continue to battle against drunk driving by enacting laws such as Zero Tolerance and Ignition Interlock systems.  Unfortunately, drunk driving will continue to be a problem for years to come, but as long as Congress continues to view it as an ongoing problem, the number of drunk driving related accidents will continue to decrease each year.  The key to eradicating drunk driving does not necessarily mean getting rid of alcohol, as historically, that has failed.  However, strict laws, monitoring, enforcing, and education are some tools that are sure to help decrease the number of drunk drivers on our roadways.  Help reduce the number of drunk driving related accidents; never get behind the wheel and drive.  A night of fun can change your life forever.

Staff (65 Posts)