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A Little DUI History Lesson

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Jul 08, 2016 | 0 Comments

After the Fourth of July weekend, numerous news articles from various media outlets around the country reported on the number of people that were arrested over the holiday for driving under the influence. Many police departments step up enforcement over the Fourth, and for good reason. The Fourth of July was "ranked as the deadliest day to be out on the road from 2000-2013." But Independence Day is not the only time of year that drinking and driving is a problem. Every day people are arrested because they chose to get behind the wheel while under the influence of an intoxicant, whether it be alcohol or drugs.

The problem of drinking and driving is nothing new, in fact, it's been around pretty much as long as cars have.

The very first ever recorded instance of a driver being arrested for driving while drunk occurred in London, England over one hundred years ago. A newspaper article from the time recounting the incident has survived and presents the following account of the events that took place on September 10, 1897. A twenty-five year old taxi driver by the name of George Smith was driving a "four-wheeled electric cab" at around 12:45 in the morning. A police constable saw Smith's vehicle suddenly swerve, go off the road, and hit a building. When he went to assist Smith, he realized that the man was drunk, so the constable took him to the police station.

Smith denied being intoxicated but a "divisional surgeon was sent for, who certified that he [Smith] was drunk." The constable estimated that Smith had been driving some 8 miles an hour when he crashed. Smith admitted to having "two or three glasses of beer," but stated that this was the first time he had been "charged with being drunk in charge of a cab." Though apparently, he had been charged with being drunk before. A Mr. De Rutzen stated that "You motor car drivers ought to be very careful, for if anything happens to you - well, the police have a very happy knack of stopping a runaway horse, but to stop a motor is a very different thing." Smith was fined 25 shillings for his irresponsible behavior.

In America, the first law against drunk driving was passed in 1906 in New Jersey, with other states following suite soon thereafter. According to Birchfield v. North Dakota, "[t]hese early laws made it illegal to drive while intoxicated but did not provide a statistical definition of intoxication." Instead of measuring BAC like we do now, other evidence was presented to show intoxication like slurred speech, etc. Starting in the 1930's laws began pass that presumed intoxication if a driver had a BAC of 0.15%. This was later lowered to .10 and then to the .08 commonly used today. In addition as time when on, laws moved away from presuming intoxication at a certain level, instead making it per se illegal to have a certain blood alcohol level while driving a car.

It's been 119 years since Mr. Smith was arrested and fined, yet, as the news clearly shows there are still people today making the same poor decision to drink and drive that he did. I wonder if in another 119 years the same stories will still appear on the news or if times will have finally changed.

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 18 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.


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