120 Years Ago the First Drunk Driving Arrest Was Made

first-drunk-driving-arrestPity George Smith. Or don’t. Exactly 120 years ago yesterday, Smith became the first person to be arrested and fined for drunk driving.

The details: Smith was a London taxi driver, and his vehicle was a Bersey electric  Taxi – yes, they had electric vehicles 120 years ago. Smith plowed into a building, was arrested, and was found to be intoxicated. He paid a fine.

A lot of things have changed since 1897. More cars than horses ply the streets of London today, and the electric cars are not made by Bersey, which closed up shop before 1900. More important, we now have ways of measuring intoxication, such as breath and blood tests, as well as a legal standard of blood alcohol concentration (BAC): .08 grams of alcohol for every deciliter of blood.

There are also ignition interlocks, which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking, and comprehensive laws designed to prevent and punish drunk driving. These include graduated penalties for repeat offenses, and consideration of aggravating factors such as high BAC and driving drunk with minors in the vehicle.

Drunk Drivers – Still With Us 12 Decades Later

What hasn’t changed is the motivation for outlawing the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated. Even in 1897, it was felt that such a large, heavy piece of moving machinery – even though the Bersey could only go 12 mph – was too dangerous unless one controlled it properly. And doing that required all one’s faculties.

More arrests were made, in England and all over the world, as time went on. People kept making the same reckless decision to drink and drive.

Cars got faster, and more people got hold of them. Drunk driving laws got more explicit, with graduated penalties for second, third and subsequent offenses. That’s because it became apparent that, no matter how many times they were fined or jailed for intoxicated driving, some people just wouldn’t stop.

first ignition interlock device
Though a pioneer in anti-drunk driving technology, LifeSafer was not around quite this long ago.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that a technology became available that addressed these repeat offenders. The ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. In the 00s the device took off, and today 30 states mandate the devices for all drunk driving offenses. Ignition interlocks are in use in many countries. In Sweden, for example, government vehicles are required to have them installed.

There doesn’t seem to be a record of whether or not Mr George Smith had a second drunk driving offense. But we do know that, thanks to ignition interlocks, thousands of drivers today are prevented from driving drunk, and we’re all safer because of it.