When Did Drunk Driving Become Illegal

The first laws against drunk driving in the United States were passed in 1910 in New York. Many other states soon followed New York in setting up laws against operating motor vehicles while under the influence of alcohol.

For many years after 1910, these laws were very general law without clear definitions as to what could be considered drunk driving. Because of this, it became very hard to press charges and impose penalties for drunk driving.

Over the years, scientific methods were developed to measure the level of alcohol intoxication. Different laws were set up in each state which laid out the criminal and financial consequences of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Let’s take a look at the evolution of laws against drunk driving and where we stand today on penalties against drunk driving.

Detecting Alcohol: From Drunkometers to Breathalyzers

The lack of scientific methods to determine the level of alcohol intoxication was a major hurdle in the history of drunk driving laws. It was the prime reason why proper convictions and arrests could not be made even after laws against drunk driving were formulated.

The invention of the Drunk-o-Meter in 1938 was a major breakthrough. Dr. Rolla N Harger, a biochemist at Indiana University, invented a device that could be used to measure the level of alcohol in the human body.

Offenders were asked to breathe into a balloon. The air in the balloon was then released into a chemical solution. The color of the solution changed depending on the level of alcohol in the system. This setup was dubbed the Drunk-o-Meter as a joke, but the name stuck.

The Drunkometer was a pioneering invention in the field of DUI laws, but its major drawback was its accessibility. It was a lengthy process involving a lot of equipment. In 1954, Robert F. Borkenstein, a photographer for Indiana State Police, developed the breathalyzer.

Borkenstein worked on making a portable and more effective version of the Drunk-o-Meter and he was successful in his efforts. Today, the breathalyzer is still the primary instrument used to flag down and book offenders before sending them off for further tests.

DUI Laws

DUI laws can vary from state to state. Let’s take a look at some of the common components of a DUI offense.

Blood Alcohol Levels for Intoxication

Blood alcohol content or BAC is the amount of alcohol circulating in your bloodstream. Depending on the levels of alcohol in your bloodstream your cognitive functions and physical abilities can be impaired.

In 1938, blood alcohol content of 0.15% was first established as the legal limit for intoxication. At this level, you will have very poor muscle control and severe inability to balance. You are also very likely to throw up.

From 1998, almost all states in the US established 0.08% BAC as the legal limit for intoxication. At 0.08% BAC, you will have poor muscle coordination, loss of balance, slower reaction times and a generally impaired sense of judgment.

Advocates against drunk driving want to lower the legal limit even further to 0.05%. At 0.05% BAC there is lowered alertness and an inability to focus eyes. You still have some control over your reaction times. So many organizations and agencies have been pushing for this reform.

Zero Tolerance

All states have a zero-tolerance policy towards underage DUI. In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed. It stated that the minimum legal age for drinking was 21 years in all states. 

The legal limit in most states is 0.08% BAC. But when it comes to underage persons this is not the case. Even small amounts of alcohol are not tolerated in underage persons who are driving.

The permissible level of alcohol in an underage driver’s system can also change from state to state. Some states do not allow even trace amounts of alcohol in the system whereas in some states the limit can be 0.01%, 0.02% or 0.03%.

Underage DUIs will lead to license suspension. Apart from this, it can also include fines, jail time, community service and remedial classes as well.

Penalties for Drunk Driving

Penalties for drunk driving vary from state to state. First offenses usually have lighter penalties. But in the case of first-offense DUIs with BAC more than 0.15% you are likely to be slapped with increased penalties.


Most DUI convictions are slapped with fines. First offenses have lower fines whereas repeat offenses have higher fines. The fine amounts vary from state to state.

Jail Time

First-offense DUIs are treated as misdemeanors. This could land you in jail for 6 months to a year. There are some states which do not require you to serve jail time for such misdemeanors.

The jail time that you get can increase if you are a repeat offender or if you have killed or seriously injured someone while under the influence of alcohol.

License Suspension

Depending on the severity of the DUI you can have your license suspended. Underage DUI will always result in a suspended license. In other cases, it depends on factors like prior convictions.

License suspensions are not court-ordered so they do not count as criminal charges. In case your license is suspended due to a DUI, you can always try applying for a hardship license.

Ignition Interlock Device (IID)

Ignition interlock devices (IID) are breath-test devices installed in a vehicle. The vehicle will not start if your BAC is more than the permissible limit.

All states have IID laws but implementation varies from state to state. Some states require IIDs for all offenders whereas in other states IIDs are only ordered depending on the circumstances.

The cost of installation and removal as well as monthly fees for the upkeep of IID have to be paid by the offenders themselves.

Community Service

Community service refers to unpaid work that will benefit society. Sometimes fines or other penalties can be combined with a community service sentence as well. This too will depend on the severity of the DUI charges. Usually—in the case of DUIs that are not considered very severe—the offenders can be asked to do community service to undo the offense.

What Are the Consequences of a DUI?

Let’s look at some of the other consequences—apart from the financial and criminal charges—that can be imposed on you because of a DUI.

Driving Record

What turns up on your driving record could affect everything from your insurance premiums to career opportunities. Generally, your driving history—including traffic violations—stay on record for a period of 3-7 years depending on state policies.

DUIs are considered serious offenses, therefore, they stay on your record for a decade. You can try to get the DUI removed from your record, but this can be a long and arduous process. Most of the time you’ll just have to wait out those 10 years.

Insurance Premiums

Any sort of blemish on your driving record can hike up your insurance premium but a DUI will definitely result in a hefty premium amount.

Insurance companies take a look at your driving history before selling you insurance. They assess the risks of providing you insurance cover and the possible losses that they might have to endure. If you are someone with repeat offenses and multiple DUIs, the risk is higher and insurance companies will either charge heavy premiums or deny insurance altogether.

Driving Privileges

DUIs can end up impacting your driving privileges. Your license can be suspended or revoked based on the severity of your charge.

Job Opportunities

Prospective employers often take a look at your driving record during the hiring process. They use driving records as a background screening method.

If you are someone with a lot of serious convictions like DUIs on your record, you might end up losing out on a lot of job opportunities. A clean record is important if you want to get a driving job.

Underage DUI

You will need to mention if you have been convicted of any crimes when you’re applying for college or any scholarships. If you have been charged with underage DUI you need to check out whether they are considered a crime in your state or merely as infractions.

You are only required to mention drug possession or sales convictions on your financial aid applications, so DUI charges do not affect your financial aid applications.

DUIs usually come under college honor code violations. But first offenses do not result in expulsion, you will generally be let off with a formal warning.

Wrapping Up

We’ve come a long way from 1910 and many measures including reducing the legal limit of BAC to adopting zero-tolerance policies were tried out in order to curb the harmful effects of drunk driving.

Yet, drunk driving is still one of the major reasons for traffic fatalities in the US. In 2018, 29% of motor vehicle fatalities were a result of drunk driving.

Alcohol can inhibit your cognitive and physical abilities. You definitely shouldn’t be getting behind your wheel if you’ve had one drink too many. Drunk driving can result in physical and financial losses both to yourself and to the public.

Drive safely and responsibly!

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