The DUI Turns 130 Years Old


In 1887, a London taxi driver named George Smith became the first person to be arrested for driving under the influence after he crashed his vehicle into a building. Smith pled guilty and was fined 25 shillings. By today’s standards, 25 shillings amounts to about 40 British pounds, which is about $70.


Prior to 1910, no state had laws against driving drunk, but that changed in 1910 when New York became the first state to adopt a law against driving under the influence of alcohol. At that time, however, there was no science available to determine a person’s blood alcohol content and consequently, the determination of whether a driver was intoxicated was left to the arresting officer.

The problematic issue facing law enforcement in determining whether a person was intoxicated improved in 1931 when Indiana University professor Rolla Harger invented the “drunk-o-meter” in an attempt to quantify intoxication. The person being tested would blow into a balloon, which was then attached a tube containing chemicals and the air in the balloon released. The alcohol in the air from the balloon would react to the chemicals and create a color and the higher the alcohol content, the greater the change in color. The “drunk-o-meter” became the predecessor to the modern breath test.

In 1954, Robert Borkenstein of Indiana University invented a portable device that also measured a subject’s blood alcohol content. The device would come to be known as the “breathalyzer”, and in 1939, Indiana became the first state to pass a law that made it illegal to drive with a specific blood alcohol content. At that time, the legal blood alcohol limit was 0.15 percent.

The late 70’s and early 80’s saw an increase in public awareness on the dangers of drunk driving. Much of this awareness was due to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which was founded by Candy Lightner in 1980 after her 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver. MADD has pushed for tougher legislation regarding DUI laws and penalties and their efforts have strongly impacted DUI laws throughout the United States. In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed, which required that states pass legislation raising the legal drinking age to 21 and lowering the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08 percent in all states.

In Florida the legal limit is currently 0.08 percent and the possible consequences of a first-offense DUI in Florida include fines, license suspension, vehicle impoundment, an ignition interlock device in the person’s car, and jail time. Enhanced penalties could apply if the convicted driver had a blood alcohol concentration of .15% or more, was involved in an accident that resulted in injuries or property damage, or had a passenger in the car who was under 18 years old.