Koplen Law Firm

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History of DWI Law

On September 10, 1897, the first drunk-driving arrest was made. The man arrested was George Smith, a London taxi driver who slammed his cab into a building while under the influence of alcohol. Smith ended up pleading guilty and paid a fine of 25 shillings.

The first state to adopt drunk-driving laws was New York in 1910, with California and other states soon following. These early DWI (“Driving While Intoxicated”) or DUI (“Driving Under the Influence”) laws simply prohibited driving while intoxicated, but there was so set definition of what level of inebriation qualified as drunk driving.

In 1936, Dr. Rolla Harger, a professor of toxicology and biochemistry, patented the Drunkometer. This balloon like device, which people breathed in to, was used to determine whether or not someone was inebriated. This was the forerunner of the today’s “Breathalyzer”, routinely administered to all drivers stopped and suspected of driving under the influence.

In 1953, Robert Borkenstein, a former police captain and university professor who helped develop the Drunkometer, invented the Breathalyzer. This machine used chemical oxidation and photometry to determine alcohol concentration. All a person would have to do is blow into the machine and it would measure the alcohol vapors in their breath. This would show the level of alcohol in their blood.

The Breathalyzer was easier to use and more accurate than the Drunkometer, which made it the perfect test for police officers to use when determining whether someone had too much too drink.

Despite the advances in blood alcohol testing, it was not until the late 1970’s that people were made aware of the dangers of drinking and driving. During this time lawmakers and police officers began to get tougher on drunk drivers.

The Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or MADD, was founded in 1980 by a California woman named Candy Lightner after her 13-year-old daughter was killed on her way home from a school carnival by a drunk driver. The driver had three previous DUI convictions and was out on bail from a hit-and-run arrest two days earlier.

Lightner and MADD helped to change the public’s attitudes about drunk-driving. The group pushed for tougher legislation of those convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs. MADD also pushed to have the legal drinking age raised.

Now, the minimum legal drinking age across the U.S. is 21. If convicted of a DWI the driver faces penalties such as fines, jail time and the loss of their license. In certain occasions, the judge will order the offender to have an ignition interlock device installed in their car.