When Did Drunk Driving Become Illegal?

The first state to adopt a law against drinking and driving was New York, in 1910. Other states quickly followed. This was only a few years after the mass production of the automobile started—it didn’t take long for law enforcement to realize the dangers of mixing alcohol and driving.

There was no legal limit established at first, however. It was up to each arresting officer to determine whether an individual was too drunk to drive. And it would be over 40 years before a reliable way to measure BAC would become widespread.

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Here are some other interesting events in the history of the fight against drunk driving:1

  • The precursor to today’s Breathalyzers, appropriately called the Drunkometer, was patented in 1936. Individuals being tested breathed into balloon-type gadget, and the air was mixed with a chemical solution. The resulting color of the air indicated the amount of intoxication.
  • Two years after the Drunkometer was introduced, the first commonly used legal limit for blood alcohol concentration, or BAC, was established. It was .15%—nearly twice today’s limit.
  • The Breathalyzer was invented in 1953 by a former police captain named Robert Borkenstein.
  • In 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed, requiring states to raise the drinking age to 21.
  • In 1998, a federal incentive grant was offered to states to encourage them to set a legal BAC limit of .08%.
  • In 2000, .08% was made the national legal limit for drinking and driving.

Drunk driving laws are still evolving, too: Utah recently voted to change its legal limit to .05%, making it the strictest in the nation. Depending on that adjustment’s success in reducing drunk driving accidents, it’s possible other states could follow.

Despite the laws against it, some people still choose to drive while intoxicated. To boost your security if you ever end up in an accident with a drunk driver, we suggest investing in a dash cam that can record the incident.


  1. Indiana Legal Archive, “‘The Drunk-O-Meter’: Indiana’s Pioneering Contribution to DUI Investigations”; Alcohol Policy Information System, “Highlight on Underage Drinking”; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Legislative History of .08 per se Laws

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Celeste Tholen
Written by
Celeste Tholen
Celeste has dedicated her decade-long career to reporting and reviews that help people make well-informed decisions. She oversees editorial strategy and production for SafeWise, with a goal to help people find the information they need to make their homes and lives safer. Prior to SafeWise, she worked as an editor and reporter for KSL and Deseret News. She continues to report on local news as a volunteer with the community paper. For the last six years, she’s led a Girl Scout troop, teaching girls about safety and preparing for whatever life throws their way.

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