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The History of Drunk Driving Laws in the U.S.

On Behalf of | Sep 19, 2018 | Criminal & Traffic Law, Rapier & Bowling

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in 2016 the national average of deaths due to OVIs or Operating a Vehicle Impaired was 37,461. This number is most certainly tragic but when you consider that average was 43,825 in 1985 it becomes a true testament to how laws on drunk driving have changed. Believe it or not, until the 1970s laws and penalties for drunk driving were pretty lax. You might be surprised by how much has changed and what it took to get stricter laws on driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

A Brief History of the Automobile

While it wasn’t mass produced for the public the first automobile suitable for human transportation was built in 1769. It wasn’t until 1870 that the gasoline automobile would be introduced. Access to affordable automobiles came along even later. Henry Ford created the assembly line for his Model T in 1913.Even before these cars became affordable and accessible to the middle class there were cars on the road. It was 1907 before law officials began revoking driver’s license for driving under the influence of alcohol. However, it still wasn’t against any laws until 1910. New York was the first state to implement such a law. Other states eventually followed suit.

Drinking and Driving from 1910-1980

While driving sober in many states was important there wasn’t really a way to test whether or not an individual was drunk. That is, until 1927 when a man named W.D. McNalley invented the breath analyzer (eventually shortened to “breathalyzer.”) This instrument caused chemicals to change color when an individual had been drinking and breathed into it. It didn’t really catch on, though, until 1931 when it was renamed and revamped by Dr. Rolla Harger. The new version, called a drunkometer, was reportedly more user-friendly than its predecessor.  The 1930s were a bad time for drunk driving thanks to the repeal of prohibition. The death rate had hit an all-time high. So, in 1938, the American Medical Association decided to look into it. As a result, in 1939, Indiana declared that a blood alcohol level of .15% qualified as drunk driving. In 1935, Dr. Harger teamed up with a former Indiana State Police Captain, Robert Borkenstein, to once again improve upon the drunkometer. Their partnership helped create what we now know as the breathalyzer test.The ensuing decades saw little change in drunk driving policies. In the 1960s the Department of Transportation determined that more than half tof car accident deaths were related to drunk driving. In the 1960s the blood alcohol content requirement was lowered from .15 to .10 in some states but not all. It wasn’t until 1977 that the police force started testing the accuracy of field sobriety tests.

The World Gets MADD

It took until the 1980’s before the US got serious about cracking down on Drunk Driving. In 1980  the mother of a 13-year-old faced the tragedy of losing her daughter when she was hit by a drunk driver and killed. That’s when Candy Lightner founded MADD, or “Mothers Against Drunk Driving.” She was determined to put a stop to drunk driving once and for all. Lightner’s initiative had a huge impact on the policies against drunk driving. For instance, once the DOT adopted “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” the catchphrase took off and brought awareness to millions of Americans across the country. With the efforts put for by MADD, the legal BAC for driving was lowered from .10 to .08 in 1983. Utah was the first state to lower the BAC but many other states didn’t follow suit until 2004 when federal law demanded it. The next year, federal mandates require all states to raise the legal drinking age from 21 to 18. For the past 30 years, more and more steps have been taken to reduce the number of accidents related to drunk drivers. For instance, in 1990 the Supreme Court ruled that sobriety checkpoints were constitutional.

What is Being Done Now?

In 2013 Ohio proposed the idea of lowering BAC to from .08 to .05. This has caused a lot of controversy over the past few years. Some say it’s a good idea to prevent further accidents of this nature but others argue .05 is too low. It would mean that many even after 1 drink a person could not drive home immediately. They would typically need to wait 45 minutes or more.

Ohio Drinking and Driving Laws

Remember that the legal drinking age is 21. For those individuals in Ohio, a BAC of .08 or higher is considered illegal. You will also be considered for an Ohio OVI if you are driving a commercial vehicle and your BAC is over .04, and likewise, if you are under 21 and your BAC is .02. If you or a loved one have been pulled over for a DUI in Greater Cincinnati or Hamilton County call a local attorney at Rapier & Bowling.   PHOTO: Minot Air Force Base / CC0 Public Domain