Driving while intoxicated is against the law, but did you know that it hasn’t always been that way? In fact, it wasn’t for quite some time after cars started to become widely available that the problem of intoxicated drivers became apparent. Since that time, the development of the science behind DUI laws and the way authorities have enforced them has evolved considerably, making accusations and convictions not only more accurate, but easier to obtain.
On this blog, we’ll take just a brief look at the history of DUI laws and how they’ve evolved into what we know of today.
Early Days of Driving
In the grand scheme of history, automobiles have still only been around for a limited amount of time. While the first cars powered by steam or coal came around as early as the mid to late 1800s, they were almost exclusively reserved for the immensely wealthy who had money to burn. It wasn’t until Henry Ford developed the Model T and the inexpensive assembly line they were built on that the automobile became affordable for the average person and driving became an everyday part of life.
As early as 1907, however, drunk driving was beginning to emerge its head as a problem. Massachusetts was one of the first states to begin cracking down on intoxicated motorists by going so far as to revoke their licenses. However, with no official laws on the books anywhere, enforcement was wildly inconsistent and convictions were really difficult to obtain.
In 1910, New York became the first state to enact legislation enforcing laws prohibiting driving while intoxicated. Other states enacted their own laws not long after, however they were quickly poked full of holes by lawyers who found easily-exploitable loopholes. In short, there was still no reliable way to collect evidence that could prove someone was actually drunk while driving.
Invention of the Breath Test
In the 1920s, that started to change as science made some important discoveries regarding the presence of alcohol in someone’s breath. W.D. McNalley invented what he called a “breath analyzer” in 1927, which caused a chemical concoction to change color when alcohol was detected in a breath stream. However, the device was too clunky and difficult to use in normal law enforcement scenarios. In 1931, Dr. Rolla Harger improved on the idea with the “drunkometer,” making roadside testing practical.
All of this occurred during the days of prohibition, when alcohol was outlawed across the country. When that came to an end in 1933, drunk driving deaths skyrocketed and people started to focus on the issue more closely. Initially, a committee from the American Medical Association suggested that any driver with a blood alcohol content level higher than .15 should be considered “drunk” under DUI laws. Yes, that’s nearly double the legal limit as we know it today. Nonetheless, Indiana became the first state to enact a law defining intoxication with a specific blood alcohol level just one year later.
“Golden Years” of Drunk Driving
The first public outrage over a drunk driving death occurred in 1949, when Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind, was killed in a drunk driving accident. As crazy as it seems, once the initial shock passed the public opinion generally tended to sway towards sympathy for the drunk driver and his unlucky break that resulted in the accident.
In 1954, Robert Borkenstein invented the Breathalyzer, a device that has since evolved and improved into the same one we have come to know today, but it wasn’t widely distributed and implemented for use due to high costs and fairly complex operating procedures. However, its accuracy and reliability was still a remarkable improvement over previous technologies.
At this point, drunk driving laws were still so lax and widely unenforced that being arrested for drunk driving was considered a “folk crime” and in some cases a rite of passage for young men as they matured into adulthood. Any arrests that did lead to a trial were usually requested to go before a jury, and defendants were almost always acquitted. By 1968, a study from the US Department of Transportation found that roughly half of all road deaths each year involved drunk driving.
Public Policy Sways
By the time the 1980s rolled around, public perception of drunk driving began to sway. In 1980, Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), who began a massive public awareness campaign about the severity of the problem. The US DOT adopted the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” campaign, and penalties for drunk driving became significantly harsher. The accuracy of breathalyzer tests led to more convictions, and tightened policies and laws became normal.
In 1984, Congress issued legislation that withheld funds from states who refused to raise their legal drinking age to 21, and by the end of the 1990s, sobriety checkpoints and ignition interlock devices were all legal. By 2004, all states had adopted .08 as the legal limit for driving drunk. Utah recently adopted a .05 limit that will go into effect at the end of December of this year.
Today, 24 states have mandatory ignition interlock requirements for all offenders (Alabama is not one of them, but does have a device program for repeat offenders).
Have you been accused of driving under the influence? Contact a Birmingham DUI attorney by calling Tidwell Law Group, LLC at (205) 800-8596 for a consultation!