Introduction to The History of Drinking and Driving Laws in the United States
The history of laws related to drinking and driving do not go as far back in history as one may think. In fact, in the United States, drinking and driving laws became more of a focus in the 1970s and 1980s.[i] However, the invention of the motor vehicle dates further back to the late 1890s.[ii] The discrepancy between the invention of the car and drinking and driving is pretty extreme, especially considering how dangerous drinking and driving is. Literature on the subject is now incredibly extensive and is regularly taught in schools across the country.[iii] Even though the history of drinking and driving laws is rather short, comparatively to other laws, lawmakers today have quickly caught up and made up for lost time.
Early Accounts of Drinking and Driving Laws
Drinking has been a common social norm for centuries around the world. Even during prohibition in the United States during the 1920s, drinking was still a hidden societal norm. Oddly enough, drinking and driving laws have not been common until the 1970s and 1980s. There have been a few accounts of early drinking and driving incidents that could be construed as the reason why there are drinking and driving laws currently in place. The very first man to be arrested for drinking and driving occurred in 1897 in London.[iv] He was a twenty five year old taxi driver who was arrested for drinking and driving after crashing his cab into a building.[v] He plead guilty and was charged 25 shillings for this incident.[vi]
In the United States, it was not until 1910 that drinking and driving laws started to be adopted.[vii] New York was the first state to adopt drinking and driving laws in the United States.[viii] States like California followed suit shortly after. The laws against drinking and driving at that time simply prohibited driving while intoxicated, but failed to provide at what level of intoxication qualified as drinking and driving.[ix]
Shortly after laws started to arise against drinking and driving, prohibition began in the United States. Between the years 1920 and 1933, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors.[x] Even though it is well known that the illegal sale of alcohol continued, commonly at locations called speakeasies, the laws regarding drinking and driving were put on hold. Once Congress repealed the 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the sale of alcohol was once again legal, the continuation of laws against drinking and driving would pick up pace again.
The Creation of Devices to Detect Intoxication Levels
In 1936, a professor from Indiana University received a patent for his Drunkometer device.[xi] Dr. Harger was a professor of toxicology and biochemistry, and he was able to create his device to measure the level of intoxication in a person.[xii] After a person blew into the device, the color of the air would change color and depending on the hue, the person using the device could tell roughly how intoxicated that person was.[xiii] Later, in 1938, the America Medical Association and the National Safety Council determined what the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration would be – 0.15.[xiv]
In 1953, former police officer and university professor Robert Borkenstein invented the breathalyzer.[xv] Similar to the Drunkometer Dr. Harger created, the breathalyzer used chemical oxidation and photometry (the science of measuring light) to determine the blood alcohol concentration.[xvi] The breathalyzer was a more accurate device than the Drunkometer and became more commonly used pretty quickly after its invention.
Change for Drinking and Driving Laws
The state of affairs did not change very much between the 1950s and the 1980s. However, in 1980, the organization Mothers Against Drunk Drivers was founded.[xvii] This organization has had such an impact on American society since its creation that it is a household name today. Candy Lightner was the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and created the organization in response to the traumatic event of her 13-year-old daughter dying as a result of a drunk driving incident.[xviii] In 1980, more than 21,000 people were killed as a result of drinking and driving, and many people had had enough, and wanted change.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving successfully lobbied so much that President Reagan started enforcing stricter policies for drinking and driving.[xix] On April 14, 1982 President Reagan established the Presidential Commission Against Drunk Driving.[xx] The purpose of this organization was to create recommendations to reach the overall goal of reducing incidents from drinking and driving. Two years later, on July 17, 1984, President Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.[xxi] This act raised the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21.[xxii] The way in which the federal government was able to pressure the states into making this change, since they were free to ignore this federal act, was to withhold any funds for highway repairs.[xxiii] So, if the states wanted funds to repair their freeways, they want to raise their state minimum drinking age from 18 to 21 as well. By 1987, all 50 states had following suit.[xxiv]
Later, in 1998, the federal government created another incentive for states in regards to drinking and driving.[xxv] The federal government created TEA-21, which was another program that was directly tied to the highways of every state. If the state wished to take part of this incentive grant, the state had to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration limit to 0.08, from the 0.15 blood alcohol concentration.[xxvi] Today, every state across the country has the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration set to 0.08%. In recent months, the National Transportation Safety Board has actually started recommending that the blood alcohol concentration should be lowered even through to a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.05%.[xxvii] It’ll be interesting to see if the federal government agrees, and whether there will be another incentive program to put the pressure onto the states to follow suit.
By 2012, every state in the United States had passed a law that used ignition interlock systems for those who were arrested and/or convicted of impaired driving.[xxviii] The ignition interlock system is a device that is installed into a vehicle, that is similar to a breathalyzer.[xxix] The device requires the driver to blow into the device before the driver is able to even turn on the car.[xxx] The device will have a pre-programmed amount, and if the driver blows above that level, the car will not turn on. Many ignition interlock systems have a program that requires random retests while the car is actually in operation.[xxxi] The random tests will take place while the car is stopped, at a light or stop sign, and if the driver blows above the pre-programmed amount the car will have an alert to pull over – which will be recorded for the company monitoring the results.[xxxii]
Drinking and Driving Statistics
While the number of deadly accidents has decreased in recent years, the number of deaths caused from drinking and driving incidents are still incredibly high. In 2014, 9,967 people were killed in alcohol-impaired driving accidents.[xxxiii] This number accounts for nearly 31% of all traffic-related deaths in the United States.[xxxiv] Alcohol related deaths from drinking and driving are not isolated to those of legal age to drink – many teenage deaths also end from these incidents as well.[xxxv] Of 1,070 traffic deaths among children between the ages of 0 to 14 years, 19% of those deaths were alcohol related incidents.[xxxvi] Of those 19%, roughly 210 children, who died from these alcohol related incidents, over half of them were riding in the vehicle with the impaired driver.[xxxvii][xxxviii]
Conclusion to The History of Drinking and Driving Laws in the United States
Drinking has been a societal norm for centuries, and it does not look like there will be any substantial changes to this norm in the foreseeable future. Driving today is also a recognized societal norm for transportation. When you mix the two together, the results can be devastating. Even though laws regarding drinking and driving have only taken off during the 1970s and 1980s, the laws in place law have definitely made object an impact on the amount of accidents caused from impaired drivers. Since 1982, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving began their lobbying for better rules, the drunk driving fatalities on our national roadways have decreased by 52%. This is an amazing accomplishment, but there is still a long way to go.[xxxix] The number of people who still died due to impaired driving incidents is in the thousands, but hopefully continued change will decrease this number with time.
The state of affairs with drinking and driving laws is a never-ending project for the government in the United States. Organizations like The National Transportation Safety are on top of constantly staying vigilant when it comes to regulations. This organization has actually suggested that the legal blood alcohol concentration limit be 0.05% rather than 0.08%.[xl] As long as organizations, and the government, are consistently looking for new ways to decrease the amount of incidents from drinking and driving, the n
[i] See First Drunk Driving Arrest History (Accessed June 12, 2016) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-drunk-driving-arrest
[ii] See First American Car Automo Story (Accessed June 10 2016) http://www.automostory.com/first-american-car.htm
[iii] See Randy W. Elder PhD. Effectiveness of School-Based Programs for Reducing Drinking and Driving and Riding with Drinking Drivers (Published 2005) https://www.thecommunityguide.org/mvoi/mvoi-AJPM-evrev-school-based.pdf
[iv] See First Drunk Driving Arrest History (Accessed June 12, 2016) http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/first-drunk-driving-arrest
[vii] See The History of Drunk Driving Laws in the U.S. Life Safer (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.lifesafer.com/blog/the-history-of-drunk-driving-laws-in-the-u-s/
[x] See Prohibition History (Accessed June 12, 2016) http://www.history.com/topics/prohibition
[xi] See The History of Drunk Driving Laws in the U.S. Life Safer (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.lifesafer.com/blog/the-history-of-drunk-driving-laws-in-the-u-s/
[xix] See History Choose Responsibility (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.chooseresponsibility.org/history/
[xxv] See The History of Drunk Driving Laws in the U.S. Life Safer (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.lifesafer.com/blog/the-history-of-drunk-driving-laws-in-the-u-
[xxvii] See Clay Lepard NTSB Recommends Lowering the Legal Blood Alcohol Limit (Published February 7, 2016) http://wnep.com/2016/02/07/lowering-the-legal-drinking-limit/
[xxviii] See The History of Drunk Driving Laws in the U.S. Life Safer (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.lifesafer.com/blog/the-history-of-drunk-driving-laws-in-the-u-
[xxix] See What is an Interlock LifeSafer (Accessed June 12, 2016) https://www.lifesafer.com/devices/what-is-an-interlock/
[xxxiii] See How Big is the Problem? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Accessed June 12, 2016) http://www.cdc.gov/motorvehiclesafety/impaired_driving/impaired-drv_factsheet.html
[xxxix] See Drunk Driving Fatalities Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (Accessed June 12, 2016) http://responsibility.org/get-the-facts/research/statistics/drunk-driving-fatalities/
[xl] See Clay Lepard NTSB Recommends Lowering the Legal Blood Alcohol Limit (Published February 7, 2016) http://wnep.com/2016/02/07/lowering-the-legal-drinking-limit/