Recommended Reading: The History of Breath Alcohol Testing

drunkometerClick here to read an interesting article by Matt Novak of the PaleoFuture blog about the history of drunk driving laws and attempts to scientifically determine blood alcohol levels through breath testing.

Here is a sample:

Scandinavian countries were ahead of the curve in adopting strict limits on drunk driving. In his 2011 book One For The Road, Barron Lerner explains that Norway’s BAC limit was 0.05% by 1936, while Sweden’s was 0.08% by 1941.

But Americans were much more lenient when it came to drunk driving. Even as late as the 1960s, American courts in many states saw anything less than 0.15% as probably not worthy of prosecution, still adhering to guidelines set up in 1939 by the National Safety Council and the American Medical Association. They gave three ranges for BAC, which would become the standard in a majority of state legislatures:

  • 0.05% and below: Defendants should not be considered under the influence
  • 0.05% to 0.15%: Not considered “under the influence” but taken into account if other evidence is presented
  • 0.15% and above: Presumed “under the influence” of alcohol

Fascinatingly, the justice system was especially lenient in part because of the many recent failures of alcohol prohibition in the U.S. during the 1920s. Even organizations like the AMA and the NSC thought it best not to be too harsh on people who drove drunk.

During the 1950s, the American public and the judicial system were still erring on the side of the drunk driver. Oddly enough, some people were concerned that the mechanization of measuring sobriety was somehow not fitting with the American way. With an attitude that seems counterintuitive to many of us here in the 21st century, people didn’t trust machines more than a cop’s testimony of slurred speech or sloppy behavior.

Opponents even had a name for the rise of technologies like the breathalizer: push-button justice…

The 1960s brought about a turning point in the public health community. Borkenstein conducted a landmark study in 1964 known as the Grand Rapids Study which concluded that there was a definitive link between increased BAC and car accidents. Amazingly, people were still debating in the 1960s whether drunk driving really posed a risk on the nation’s roads.

Just a few years later, in 1968 a study by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that about half of the nation’s auto fatalities (about 25,000 deaths) involved alcohol. Slowly but surely over the course of the next two decades, Americans would come to see drunk driving as without question dangerous and immoral. And the technology for testing BAC (which would become electronic by the end of the 1970s) would help put an end to an era that some people called the Golden Age of Drunk Driving.

Read the whole thing here:

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