bac levelPinThere is rarely a day when some type of news, statute, or technology regarding DWI law is not front and center in the public eye. The history and evolution of drunk driving technology offer an interesting backdrop to explain salient issues and emerging technology.

Londoner George Smith has the dubious distinction of receiving the very first DWI on 10 September 1897 when he crashed his vehicle into the side of a building. Since then, a growing awareness of the dangers of drunk driving led to stricter legislation and innovative technology designed to identify and apprehend individuals who pose a threat to others by driving while intoxicated.

With increasingly sophisticated technology from alcohol-sensing flashlights and skin patches, to ignition interlock devices, to newer vehicles with built-in alcohol sensors which prevent an intoxicated driver from even starting his/her vehicle, one has to wonder how driving under the influence was handled in the early days.

According to New York University Professor Barron Lerner, who also penned One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, early police officers relied on roadside sobriety tests somewhat similar to those contemporary officers use: walking in a straight line, standing on one foot, touching one’s nose with one’s fingertips, and—quite humorously—having the driver repeat “Methodist Episcopal” quickly three times. The biggest problem with these types of tests was that defendants would accuse the police of lying and, “No, Your Honor, I was not drunk.”

The Evolution of the Breathalyzer

In the late 1700’s, J. J. Plenc proposed that poisons—including alcohol—can be chemically identified. During the early part of the 20th century, Swedish physiologist Erik Widmark extended Plenc’s hypothesis and identified a link between blood alcohol content and drunkenness. Widmark developed a sobriety test that relied on a fingertip blood sample; however, his method was not well received.

In the 1930’s—at the end of Prohibition—Indiana University scientist Dr. Rolla Harger invented the Drunk-o-meter: a precursor to the modern breathalyzer but much bigger and unwieldy. The person being tested would blow into a balloon, and the air in the balloon would be released into a chemical solution that would change color if it detected any alcohol. The greater the color change, the higher the level of alcohol in one’s system. The device would produce an estimate of the subject’s blood alcohol content. Whereas the Drunk-o-meter became available for police officers by 1937, its size and bulk—almost as large as a small suitcase—limited its widespread application.

In 1954, Indiana University’s Chairman of the Department of Police Administration Robert Borkenstein invented the Breathalyzer, a more portable method of measuring blood alcohol content than the Drunk-o-meter. Breathalyzers do not actually measure blood alcohol content because the latter requires analysis of an actual blood sample. Instead, breath analyzers estimate one’s blood alcohol content by measuring the amount and concentration of alcohol in a person’s breath.

Today, breath analyzers use one of three technologies: infrared spectrophotometer technology used in evidentiary machines; electrochemical fuel cell-based, handheld devices such as the preliminary breath test (PBT) or preliminary alcohol screening (PAS), used by roadside police officers; and semiconductor oxide-based testers, used primarily for personal and non-law enforcement, professional testing applications and, of the three, the least expensive and reliable.

Of particular importance was the Breathalyzer’s far-reaching influence on the law. According to New York University’s Center for Research in Crime and Justice Director James B. Jacobs—and author of Drunk Driving: An American Dilemma—the breathalyzer led to “per se” laws in which an individual’s blood alcohol content formed the basis for determining if s/he was drunk—instead of simply his/her actions.

Drunk Driving Laws Get Serious

During the 1980’s, the consensus that drunk driving was, indeed, a serious offense emerged. Advocacy groups like Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)—as well as victims’ families—increased awareness of the dangers and tragedies drunk driving creates. This advocacy produced significant results. Since then, drunk driving fatalities have been steadily decreasing. In fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) reports 50 percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities since 1980, especially in the 16-20 year-old group; however, the problem of drunk driving continues.

Newer Technology

As mentioned, after fledgling devices like the Drunk-o-meter and the Breathalyzer in all of its incarnations, emerging technology continues to take up arms in the fight against drunk driving. From alcohol-sensing tattoos, to vehicle interiors with alcohol-detecting sensors, to ignition interlock devices, to whole vehicles equipped with anti-drunk driving technology, who knows what the future will bring? Drunk driving may not even be an issue in the next 100 years. One can only hope.