World's First DUI - 9/10/1897

US History |


On September 10th of 1897, not long after the world's first “horseless carriage” (car) was invented, the world's first drunk driving test was administered to a taxi driver in London.

The 25-year-old taxi driver's name was George Smith. He was pulled over by a constable and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI), when he smashed his cab into the side of a building. George Smith pleaded guilty as charged, and received a fine of 25 schillings. 

In the United States, the first drunk driving laws took effect in New York City in 1910. However, the first alcohol testing device was not invented until 1936, when Dr. Rolla Harger, a professor of biochemistry and toxicology, patented what he called the Drunkometer. It was a balloon-like piece of apparatus, which people would be instructed to breathe into, and this would determine whether or not they were inebriated.

In 1953, Robert Borkenstein, a former Indiana State Police Captain who had collaborated with Dr. Harger on the Drunkometer, invented the Breathalyzer test. The Breathalyzer test gauged the proportion of alcohol vapors in the exhaled breath of the suspect. This reflected the driver's blood alcohol levels, and gave an easier and more accurate reading of the driver's level of drunkenness.

Despite these developments, American citizens did not really become aware of the dangers of drunk driving until the 1970s and early 1980s. That was when lawmakers started cracking down. They passed harsh legislation against drunk driving, and the police forces started coming down extra hard on DUI offenders.

In 1980, a California mom named Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her 13-year-old daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver while walking home from a carnival. The driver who killed Cari had three previous DUI convictions and was currently out on bail from a hit and run arrest just two days earlier. MADD is largely responsible for tougher legislations and increased penalties on drunk drivers.

These days, people who are convicted of DUI face jail time and license revocation, among other things. Some repeat offenders (if they are still allowed to drive at all) are forced to breathe into a sensory device installed in their dashboards, which measures the driver's blood alcohol level. If the driver's blood alcohol level is above a certain limit, the car will not start.

MADD has also helped get the minimum drinking age raised in many states. Today, the minimum drinking age is 21 in every state, and the authorities come down hard on anyone who serves alcohol to minors. 

Still, drunk driving remains a dire problem in the United States. For instance, in 2005, 16,885 people in the United States died in alcohol related auto accidents. That same year, almost 1.4 million people were arrested for driving while intoxicated. Most of them were not minors.

How even more unfair it seems that the driver who is drunk is, statistically speaking, the one who suffers fewer injuries during an accident. 

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Nancy Reyes

Senior Writer

One of our top senior writers, Nancy came to us wanting to break away from the politics that comes with major news corporations. She leads our team of historical writers in creating the best engaging content out there that keeps our readers coming back for more. She is an enthusiast of all things medieval and has been a member of her renaissance fair group for 15 years. She received her degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California and hopes to one day travel the world.