The Historical Development of Today’s DUI Laws

Ask any U.S. citizen today if they know that it is against the law to operate a motor vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Of course, most would answer, “yes” immediately. However, this has not always been the case. Not long ago, states enacted the first wave of DUI laws, which would become a mainstay in our society as a means to make the streets safe.

In 1906, New Jersey became the first state in the union to criminalize driving an automobile while intoxicated. The New Jersey law stated no “intoxicated person shall drive a motor vehicle.” Any violation of this law amounted to a $500.00 fine (quite a large amount of money in 1906) or up to 60 days in county jail. In 1910, New York followed suit, and eventually, so did all the other states. The original DUI laws were much different than today’s versions because they simply prohibited driving while intoxicated. The laws did not specify what blood alcohol concentration (“BAC”) level constituted being intoxicated. As a result, the laws lacked a clear definition as to what qualifies as drunk or intoxicated driving. It took lawmakers quite some time to address the ambiguity problem of when someone was “intoxicated.” At the time, there was no way to properly measure an individual’s BAC. Additionally, even if a driver’s BAC could be determined, there lacked an understanding as to the correlation between BAC and the motor skills necessary to safely operate a vehicle. Thus, appropriate BAC level recommendations could not be made. However, an unlikely invention eventually paved the way to clarity.

In 1936, Rolla N. Harper invented a device called the “Drunkometer,” which incorporated a balloon in its design to indicate with decent accuracy a person’s BAC. Then, Robert Borkenstein, an American scientist and police officer, collaborated with the Indiana University School of Medicine to expand the Drunkometer for law enforcement purposes. Authorities were finally able to establish a correlation between BAC and intoxication. Therefore, in 1938, the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council suggested establishing 0.15 percent as the proper BAC level to consider an individual drunk.

Borkenstein’s ingenuity did not stop with the Drunkometer. In 1953, he introduced the Breathalyzer—which has become an important component of a police officer’s tool kit. The Breathalyzer was superior to the Drunkometer in that it used chemical oxidation and photometry to more accurately measured the alcohol vapors in an individual’s breath. From this point on, there was a fairly accurate way to measure the alcohol in an individual’s system, which meant that authorities could also tell, better than they ever had before, whether someone was intoxicated. Next, it was up to states to modify their existing testing standards to account for this technological breakthrough.

For the subsequent decade, law enforcement officers rarely enforced DUI laws. The potential penalties for driving under the influence were relatively harsh, and perhaps that is why officers were initially reluctant to enforce them. The officer’s reluctance led to backlash among public interest groups that advocated for stricter enforcement of DUI laws. Eventually, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) convinced some states to lower their DUI BAC levels to 0.10 percent. 

In the 1970s, the federal government and state governments sought to further prevent the increasing spread of DUI-related traffic accidents across the United States. This led to the development and passage of per se DUI laws—where, to be convicted of a DUI, a state does not need to prove that alcohol in the driver’s system is what affected the driver’s ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. The only thing a state needed to prove was that driver was operating the vehicle while his or her BAC was above the respective state’s legal limit. Per se DUI laws combined with a growing public interest in preventing DUI-related deaths shaped the severity of current penalties for drunk driving.

In the 1980s and 1990s, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (“MADD”) and Students Against Destructive Decisions (“SADD”) began receiving national attention for their efforts to combat drunk driving. Activist Candy Lightner arguably did the most to shed light on the dangers of driving under the influence by founding “MADD.” In 1980, a drunk driver with three previous DUI convictions hit and killed Ms. Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter while she was on her way home from a school function. The driver was out on bail at the time of the accident from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier. The public outrage associated with this tragedy was quite severe. MADD continues to be influential in shaping DUI legislation throughout the country.

In 2000, the Clinton administration used congressional spending powers to require all states to lower their BAC legal limit to 0.08 percent. If a state decided not to adopt the new nationwide standard, they would lose a substantial amount of federal highway construction funds. The federal government rationalized this decision by stating it was a bipartisan public policy goal to decrease DUI-related deaths, and it used statistics to show that decreasing the BAC limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent would save roughly 500 lives per year. Accordingly, most states complied with the federal government’s new, universal BAC limit. 45 states passed laws lowering the permissible BAC limit to 0.08 percent by October 2003. The final five states did not hold out much longer as all 50 states were on board by July 2004.

The 0.08 percent BAC limit and the per se component of DUI law is the minimum standard of all 50 states’ DUI laws today. However, some states have gone beyond what the federal government suggests in order to combat and deter driving under the influence. For instance, Utah boasts the strictest BAC limit in the nation. The state adopted a BAC limit of 0.05 percent in late 2018. Furthermore, many states have added harsher penalties for excessively high BAC levels. For instance, Arizona, California, Texas, Washington and many other states have harsher penalties for DUI convictions where the driver’s BAC was 0.15 percent or more.

DUI laws are constantly evolving. As government authorities seek new ways to reduce DUI-related deaths, other states will undoubtedly also look to lower their legal limits. If the trend from the 1960s to today tells us anything, we should prepare for stricter DUI laws in the future.

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