The DUI Turns 118 Years Old

Posted by Jon Ibanez on September 7th, 2015

September 10th marks the 118th birthday of the DUI arrest. As September 10th approaches, I would be remiss not to post a little bit of history of the DUI and what it has become since.

118 years ago, on September 10th 1987, a London taxi driver by the name of George Smith became the first person to be arrested for driving under the influence after he crashed his vehicle into a building. Smith pled guilty and was fined 25 shillings. By today’s standards, 25 shillings amounts to about 40 British pounds which is about 67 U.S. dollars.

Today, DUI laws seem almost as ubiquitous as cars themselves. That, however, was not always the case. Prior to 1910, no state had any law against driving drunk. That changed when, in 1910, New York became the first stated to adopt a law against driving under the influence of alcohol. Of course, at that time, science had not allowed law enforcement to know what a person’s blood alcohol content was. Consequently, the law could not provide a per se blood alcohol content limit like we have today. Rather, a determination of whether a driver was intoxicated was left to the interpretation arresting officer.

The difficulties facing law enforcement in determining whether a person was drunk and, if so, how drunk took a step forward in 1938. That year Indiana University professor, Rolla Harger invented the “drunk-o-meter” in an attempt to quantify intoxication. The person being tested would blow into a balloon. The balloon was then attached a tube containing chemicals and the air in the balloon released. The alcohol in the air from the balloon would react to the chemicals and create a color. The higher the alcohol content, the greater the change in color.

The “drunk-o-meter” became the predecessor to the modern breath test. In 1954, Robert Borkenstein, chairman of Indiana University’s department administration, invented a more portable device than Harger’s “drunk-o-meter” and that also actually measured a subject’s blood alcohol content. The device would come to be known as the “breathalyzer.”

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 blood alcohol limit was 0.15 percent. Other states began to follow suit.

The late 70’s and early 80’s saw an influx of public awareness on the dangers of drunk driving. Much of this awareness was due to the creation of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. The group was founded by Candy Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The group has since pushed for tougher legislation regarding DUI laws and penalties.

MADD’s efforts did indeed begin to impact DUI laws throughout the country. In 1984, The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed. It required that states pass legislation raising the legal drinking age to 21.

MADD’s influence also partly led to the lowering of the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08 percent in all states.

In 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted to recommend that states lower their blood alcohol limits to 0.05 percent. Whether states adopt the recommendation is yet to be seen.

Currently, in California the legal limit is 0.08 percent. A person can also be charged and convicted of a DUI if they are “under the influence” even though they may not be above a 0.08 percent.

The statutory minimum sentence for a first-time DUI conviction is three years of informal probation, $390 in fines and fees plus penalties and assessments, and a 3-month DUI program. While this is the minimum, punishments may also include AA meetings, a MADD-sponsored “Victim Impact Panel,” a “Hospital and Morgue Program,” or CalTrans.

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