Welcome to America Comes Alive!, a site I created to share little-known stories of America’s past. These stories are about Americans—people just like you—who have made a difference and changed the course of history. Look around the site and find what inspires you.


Drunk Driving Laws Date to 1910

New York led the way with passing the first laws against drunk driving. The year was 1910 and the methods for a police officer to use to check for drunkenness included looking for bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, the smell of alcohol, or testing a person’s ability to walk in a straight line.

By 1920 America was beginning to see an increase in the number of the cars on the road but when Prohibition first went into effect, the law succeeded in slowing the statistics on  accidents related to drunk driving.

As access to alcohol or homemade substitutes began to increase in the late 1920s and early ‘30s, police forces began to worry about an uptick in alcohol-related car accidents. While an officer could ask a driver to walk a straight line or stand on one leg or put his finger to his nose, none of these tests were scientific, which weakened them in court.

In Search of a Chemical Test

If a drunk driving charge were to hold up in court, police needed a rapid chemical test that could assess alcohol consumption. Experts knew that the concentration of alcohol in the blood or in the urine was indicative of how much alcohol had been consumed, but officers knew that getting a blood or urine sample from a potentially drunk driver whom they had just pulled over was never going to be practical.

Early work (1847) by British physician, Francis Edmund Anstie (1833-1874), established that alcohol could be measured in the breath, and by 1927 an American scientist established a correlation between alcohol in the breath and alcohol in the blood.

Dr. Rolla N. Harger, a biochemistry professor at Indiana University medical school, was the first person to devise a workable system that police could employ for testing a driver’s breath that could be used in court.

In 1931 Dr. Harger came up with his first tester that was somewhat portable, and he often rode along with the police who would ask drivers to test the device (with no fear of penalty).

The device involved having the suspect blow into a balloon; their breath was then released into a liquid mixture and the police would observe the liquid for a color change. If the solution changed colors, this meant that the person had had too much to drink. Experts went to work on establishing a formula so that the breath level could be translated into a blood level that could be used in court.

Harger refined his invention, knowing that his further goal had to be to make the device simple for the police to use and simple for a judge and jury to understand.

An early form of the device fit into a box about the size of a small suitcase, but because of the need to mix the chemicals, the best way to administer the test was bringing the person back to the police station.

Drunkometer Patented in 1936   

Harger’s device was patented in 1936 with the rights given to the Indiana University Foundation.  As patented, the the drunkometer collected air inside a balloon which was then pumped through acidified potassium permanganate solution. The solution changed colors according to the level of alcohol concentration.  The deeper the color change, the more alcohol still present in the person’s body.

As it happened the color change was dramatic enough that it sometimes served as a truth serum. People would note the alteraction and would respond with a more complete and specific description of what they had been drinking.

First Couple Arrested

The first couple arrested after failing breath tests were Roy and Neva Gordon who were stopped by the Indiana police in early August of 1937, writes Rick Mueller on the California DUI Lawyer Center Blog.

Borkenstein

It seems that the Gordons were trying to pass another car on a two-lane road, and they crashed head-on into an oncoming car in the other lane.  This action catapulted their own car back into the car they were trying to pass, leading to a three-car pile-up.

The Gordons were taken to the nearest police station where they were asked to blow into a drunkometer.  The Gordons both admitted to having had a few drinks but based on this first official use of the drunkometer, they seemed to be woefully under-reporting their alcohol consumption.

A few days later, their attorney was trying to debunk the use of the machine in court, so he offered to be evaluated with the drunkometer.  As the attorney breathed into the balloon, the chemicals failed to register much of a color change.

The attorney then announced that he had had three shots of cognac and a beer at lunch, just before the afternoon hearing. Only after his statement did he realize that this only proved that his clients had drunk way more than he had (and more than they had reported) in order for the drunkometer to register the color change as it had for them.

However, ultimately neither of the Gordons was convicted of drunk driving. There had so much fuss about the testing that the police could no longer remember which one of them had been behind the wheel.

Drunkometer Leads the Way

The drunkometer continued to be used in Indiana.  After Indiana put on the books a detailed law that forbad driving under the influence, other states soon followed, and more police forces purchased drunkometers.  However, as they worked with the device, scientists and attorneys began to be troubled by the variations in blood alcohol levels when determined by drunkometer breath samples. It was clear this invention was only  a start.

In 1954 Robert Borkenstein, then a member of the Indiana State Police, invented the Breathalyzer; he devised a handheld version of the testing device that could be used in the field as a screening method. Various forms of the Breathalyzer are still used today.


Kate Kelly

Kate Kelly is an engaging speaker and successful author of more than 30 nonfiction titles ranging from the bestselling Organize Yourself! to Living Safe in an Unsafe World. She has recently returned to her love of history and is writing and publishing a monthly e-letter, "American Snapshots," which she describes as "making sense of today by looking at yesterday."

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