When Did Drinking And Driving Become Illegal?

Did you know that drunk driving isn’t always illegal in the US? And even when the laws were created prohibiting driving and drinking, most states were lax in implementing them. As more accidents happened because of DUI (driving under the influence), regulations became stricter, and states began actively enforcing the law.

Let’s take a look at the history of drinking and driving laws in the United States. 

The Origins Of Drunk Driving Laws

The first recorded instance of a drunk driving law was in England in 1897. Intoxicated cab driver George Smith struck a building with his cab after slamming into it. The punishment for breaking the law was two months in jail and a fine of 25 pounds. 

In 1910, New York became the first state in the US to pass a law making it illegal to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Authorities soon realized that it was dangerous to drink and drive a few years before the mass production of cars happened. It was left up to police officers to determine whether a driver was drunk, as there was no legal limit.

In 1936, a Biochemistry and Toxicology professor named Dr. Rolla Harger patented the Drunkometer. It was a balloon-like device where suspected drunk drivers could exhale, and their breaths would be mixed with a chemical solution to determine their intoxication level. It was the precursor to Breathalyzers. With this tool, police officers have a way to determine a person’s intoxication levels scientifically.

Two years later, legislators established the legal limit for BAC (blood alcohol concentration) at 0.15%, a figure two times higher than today’s prevailing limit. 

By 1953, Robert Borkenstein, a police officer, invented the Breathalyzer in collaboration with Dr. Harger. It’s a more accessible and accurate version of the Drunkometer and was practical to carry around by police officers. 

Increasing Public Awareness Led to Stricter Laws

However, it wasn’t until the 70s and 80s that the public became more aware of the dangers of drunk driving. By this time, more individuals owned cars, and the dangers of drunk driving became commonplace. 

Drunk driving at that time was tolerated, and no one was punished, even for the accidents. As the death toll rose, private groups started questioning the driving limits and penalties in place.

In 1980, Candy Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). Innocently walking home from a carnival, her daughter, Cari, was hit by a drunk driver and died. MADD became a lobbying force that pushed legislators to enact strict laws to punish drunk drivers.

In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which required states to raise the drinking age to 21. By 1998, Congress passed a law that gave federal incentive grants to states who lowered their BAC to 0.08%, which became the National Limit by 2000.  

The Fight Against Drunk Driving Continues

Despite these laws, drunk driving accidents are still occurring at alarming rates. In 1980, there were nearly 26,000 deaths due to drunk driving accidents. Thanks to the efforts of MADD and other similar organizations, drunk driving-related fatalities have decreased significantly since 1980.

However, drunk driving still accounts for 28% of traffic fatalities in 2019. In 2020, there were nearly 11,000 deaths due to drunk driving accidents—still far too many, but a drastic decrease from previous years nonetheless. 

States like Utah have changed their legal limit to 0.05%, and other states would be asked to follow if the lowered limit is proven successful at curbing drunk driving accidents. The fight to end drunk driving has been long and arduous. However, due to the dedication of groups like MADD, drunk driving accidents have reduced significantly.

Keep Yourself Safe From Drunk Drivers

Despite strict laws and penalties against drunk driving, some still choose to drive when intoxicated. There are 3.78 million attempts to drive above the 0.08 BAC limit. This can cause stress and worry, especially when driving with passengers in your car. To protect yourself, you can invest in dash cams to record the incident. 

Always follow traffic safety rules and steer clear of any vehicles that may appear to be moving at suspicious speeds or doing uncanny maneuvers. Remaining vigilant on the road is your best bet to staying safe despite other people’s carelessness. At the end of the day, our safety is still our responsibility. 

Check out our blogs at the Be Safe for more articles about keeping you and your family protected in your own home.