September 10, 1897 a man named George Smith plowed his car into the side of a London building, he was the first person ever get what we refer to today as Driving While Intoxicated (DWI). It’s sad to say that the history of drunken driving is almost as old as the automobile.
Without the technology that we have today, just how did the early days of DWI work?
Barron Lerner, NYU professor and author of “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900,” said that, at first, police relied on the same sort of roadside sobriety tests used today, things like walking in a straight line or standing on one foot or having a driver say ‘Methodist Episcopal’ three times fast.”
In the 1910s, Lerner said, a Swedish physiologist named Erik Widmark studied the correlation between blood alcohol content and drunkenness, where he developed a sobriety test using a fingertip blood sample, but that method never caught on. In the 1930s, an Indiana University scientist named Rolla Harger took drunken driving stops to the next level with the invention of the Drunkometer. It worked much like todays breathalyzers but bigger and bulkier.
The Drunkometer became available for police officers to use in 1937, although many officers did not use the device because of its bulky shell. Finally, in 1954, Robert Borkenstein invented what we call today “the breathalyzer”.
We now even have interlock systems that repeat drunken driving offenders need to install in their vehicles, which is another way to help keep our roads safe by making sure our vehicles don’t start should our blood alcohol level be higher than the legal limit.
It will be interesting to see what inventions we see in the near future. With the technology we have today, drunk driving will be extinct in another 118 years.
For more on the evolution of drunk driving testing, click here.
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