Drunk Driving in 1954: New Breath Test Technology Will Save the Day!

car-life-breath-test-articleYour Hump-day Recess: Blow Here

Sometimes we talk about distancing ourselves from technology to improve our lives. But some gadgets really do make life better, as opposed to just more convenient. Drunk driving is a good example. Until we had a good breath test for alcohol, the problem stuck with us. Accurate breathalyzers and ignition interlocks has given everyone on the road a better chance of making it home.

In December of 1954 Car Life Magazine ran an article called, “What is a Drunken Driver?” In the fight against impaired driving, 1954 was early days. Few states had good laws or stiff penalties. Drunk driving was still tolerated, or thought to be an uncontrollable hazard of life, rather than a crime. However, a gadget called a “drunkometer” was gaining popularity in law enforcement. The Car Life article was clearly a plug for the new technology.

Back then, however, it wasn’t enough to praise a gadget that could catch drunk drivers: the device was also pitched as a way to exonerate people wrongly picked up for drunk driving. Of course, a concussion or illness can on occasion mimic drunkenness, but those cases are 1955-breath test technologyrare. Alcohol is usually the culprit, and the breath test is designed to set the record straight. Perhaps 1954 readers were more worried about the railroading of innocents than the conviction of real offenders – just as drivers in the early 1960s seemed more worried about being trapped by a stuck seat belt in a burning car (unlikely) than being thrown into a windshield (likely).

Historical note: at the time the article was written, a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .15 was the usual standard of drunkenness. Now it’s .08, and anyone blowing a .15 will be facing extra penalties. As times change, so do standards of impairment. In fact, the article complains that “without scientific tests, the officer often is faced with alibi witnesses who swear that the defendant only had two or three drinks…” These days, any witness who tells the court that the driver had two or three drinks is working for the prosecution.

The Breath Test Tech Catches On

As we said, 1954 was early days. Not many police departments had a breathalyzer or “drunkometer” at their disposal. For that reason, the article states that the true number of drunk drivers will “always be unknown.” The writer had no way of knowing how miniaturization would make a breath test much easier to administer, leading to much better statistics.

Breathalyzer technology was the first step toward making a real dent in drunk driving. Legislation was needed, and that came starting in 1980, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving began urging states to clean up their act. Eventually the drinking age was lowered nationally, penalties were raised, the breath test became standard practice, and drunk driving became unfashionable. In the 1990’s the breathalyzer technology was applied to a new device – an ignition interlock – which prevented a vehicle from starting if the driver had been drinking. Whatever else has happened since 1954, as far as the progress of the sober driving movement is concerned, those 62 years were not wasted.

Your Hump Day Recess: Every Wednesday LifeSafer brings you something a little different, related to the worlds of road safety, to ease your progress over Hump Day and through the week.
Previous Hump Days: a German Ignition Interlock spoof from 1960, our Top 10 Worst Crash Tests, a different kind of Anti-DUI message, Budweiser’s dogged anti-DUI campaign, How Not to Dodge a Parking Ticket, the world’s worst traffic jams, a dramatic buzzed driving PSA , an offbeat ad from New ZealandVince and Larry, our favorite crash test dummies, some excellent Soviet anti-drunk-driving posters. a lesson on how buzzed driving can ruin your love life, South Australia to Drunk Drivers: Grow Up!, a woman calls 911 to report herself for DUI, Felix the Cat and Drunk Driving,  DUIs who crash vintage cars – (ouch!), Woman Unwittingly Creates Self-Driving Car, A Brilliant PSA from Australia, a Road Safety Message in a Vodka Bottle, a PSA about binge drinking that is decidedly “meh,” Drunk Driver Crashes $4 Million Car, Drunk Driving in 1910 and a Superb New Think! PSA from the UK