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Drunk Driving Laws Date to 1910

testing the drunkometer
An early breath test

New York led the way in passing the first laws against drunk driving. The year was 1910. At first, the methods used by a police officer 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. 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 made them less effective 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. However, officers knew that getting a blood or urine sample from a potentially drunk driver whom they had pulled out of traffic was never going to be practical.

photo of drunkometer machine

Early work (1847) by British physician, Francis Edmund Anstie (1833-1874), established that alcohol could be measured in the breath. 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 to test a driver’s breath. It was one that would likely hold up in court, but there was a difficulty: The equipment was large.

In 1931, Dr. Harger came up with the first tester that was somewhat portable. 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. The 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 kept refining his invention. He knew that the device needed to be simple enough for the police to use in the chaos of a traffic stop. Then the results needed to be easy to explain for a judge and jury.

An early form of the device fit into a box about the size of a small suitcase. However, because chemicals needed to be mixed, the ideal way to administer the test was bringing the person back to the police station.

Drunkometer Patented in 1936

Harger’s device, known as the drunkometer, was patented in 1936. The rights were 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 observe the dramatic color change and respond with a more complete and specific description of what they had been drinking.

First Driver Ticketed

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

Robert Borkenstein, inventor of the Breathalyzer
Breathalyzer inventor

It seems that the Gordons were trying to pass another car on a two-lane road. 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. However based on the first official use of use of the drunkometer, they seemed to be woefully under-reporting their alcohol consumption.

A few days later, their attorney tried to debunk the use of the machine in court. To do so, he suggested that he undergo evaluation right there in court. As the attorney breathed into the balloon, the chemicals failed to register much of a color change.

Tested in Court

The attorney then announced that he had three shots of cognac and a beer at lunch, just before the afternoon hearing. Only after his statement did he realize that this declaration was damaging. If he drank that much, and the drunkometer didn’t register, then his clients must have drunken much more to stimulate the color change.

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 at the time they were stopped. Therefore, not guilty!

Drunkometer Leads the Way

Silly photo of a man and a Breathalyzer machine
Poking fun at the Breathalyzer

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.

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