The History & Future of the Breathalyzer: Part I

Driving under the influence has a major stigma as an immoral and dangerous action that should be heavily punished upon a guilty verdict. This is questioned by almost nobody today, as studies have demonstrated the inherent danger in drunk driving and proven it with statistics such as injuries and deaths it has caused. This makes it somewhat mind-blowing to think that this wasn’t always the case; in the early days of the common-man’s car driving drunk was not illegal at all, and when it did become illegal it was very lightly enforced!

Studying this history can help us learn about where this attitude of caution and little-tolerance for DUI comes from and where this legislation may go in the future. In this first of a two-part blog, we take a look at the early history of DUI testing and legislation to get a better idea of the foundation which the due process and testing of today is built on.

A Problem Emerges

For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cars were nothing more than symbols of wealth for the extraordinarily rich. That changed when Henry Ford started making cars by assembly line and brought the overall cost to own a vehicle down significantly, which made them more accessible to the average American. By the time the Roaring 20s came about, automobiles were becoming more common amongst middle class families, resulting in lots of automobile traffic and an explosion of accidents, injuries, and other problems these vehicles caused.

At this point there were very few laws surrounding operating a car, and there were no laws regarding driving drunk. Even during the prohibition era, people were still finding ways of getting drunk (usually through moonshine sold at secret illegal bars) and then sliding behind the wheel of their car in order to get home. Despite the fact that these drunk drivers caused a lot of accidents, there was no way to scientifically prove that someone was drunk. That changed in 1927 when Dr. Emil Bogen determined that you could consistently and accurately determine someone’s blood-alcohol content by testing their blood, urine, and breath. Thus, the pursuit of the breathalyzer was born.

The First Law Enforcement Test Device

When prohibition was repealed in late 1933, alcohol-related automobile deaths spiked sharply in early 1934, prompting the need for better legislation and an accurate way of testing and charging those who drove while intoxicated. Enter Dr. Rolla N. Harger of Indiana University whose testing device (dubbed the “Drunkometer”) involved the subject blowing into a bladder, then releasing that air into concoction of chemicals which would turn a greenish color depending on the amount of alcohol present. By the 1940s, police departments were using this device around the country. While it was consistent and potentially accurate, it was not easy to use and required testing law enforcement officers to use a precise chemical mixture to get an accurate reading, something that would likely invalidate it as court-admissible evidence today.

However, breath tests were not standardized at this point. The L.A. Police Department used a device known as the “Intoximeter” to test for drunkenness, and Yale researchers Leon Greenberg and Frederic Keator created their own device, both running off the same principle of comparing alcohol in breath to a pre-mixed solution to determine a percentage level. Neither of these devices were extremely accurate, however, which led to a continued lackadaisical attitude towards operating a vehicle while drunk.

Part II of “The History & Future of the Breathalyzer” is coming soon!

If you have been arrested and charged with driving under the influence, it is important to seek legal representation from a skilled DUI lawyer in Pasadena as soon as possible. Hutton & Wilson have represented hundreds of clients against their charges, and can critically analyze all of the evidence in your case to fight on your behalf in court. Our attorneys are held in high regard by both their former clients and their peers, making them a top choice for DUI defense in the Pasadena area.

Call Hutton & Wilson today by dialing (626) 587-2220 and request a free consultation for your DUI case!