A Short History of Drunk Driving

A DrinkingAndDriving.Org Article

Drunk driving actually began long before automobiles were invented. As soon as man climbed onto the back of another animal and began riding, there have been drunken horse, camel, and elephant riders. Drinking played a large part in seafaring as well.

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Until fairly recently in human history, alcohol played an important part in many civilizations for a simple reason. A constant source of clean water is harder to come by than you might think. Without modern materials and methods, stored water quickly stagnates.

We turn on a faucet and drinkable water comes out. To get to our faucet, massive amounts of water are first collected, processed to make sure it is safe, and stored before piping it to our homes. The collection, processing, and distribution system for clean water was actually devised in the 20th century. Until then, safe, drinkable water even here in America, was scarce. 100 years ago, diseases like dysentery, cholera and typhoid would spread through water killing hundreds of thousands.

And that’s the way it had been throughout the ages.

greek grape goddessAs early man abandoned nomadic lifestyles and created villages and towns, clean water supplies would not last. Invariably, the source of the water becomes tainted, perhaps by animals, or perhaps by another tribe upstream.

As an alternative to water, alcohol could be stored longer and was usually safer. It wasn’t fully understood then, but most of the deadly viruses and germs that lived and worked in water could not survive in alcohol. So it was that alcohol became a staple in most people’s lives.

It’s no wonder that between killing germs and dulling pain, alcohol was also always widely used as a medicine.

Historians claim that slaves building the Great Pyramid at Giza drank about 1 ½ gallons of beer a day. While pyramid-building slaves did not ride animals, it shows how much beer was being produced thousands of years ago. Brewing beer was a daily task in every Egyptian household. Meanwhile, pharaohs and kings preferred wine. Many tombs (including Tut's) contained jars of wine and art depicting the making or consuming of wine.

Alcohol is mentioned again and again throughout history. It is easy to presume that there were drunken chariot riders in ancient Rome and Egypt. Attila the Hun died around the year 445 on his wedding night from an alcohol overdose and a nosebleed. Seldom pictured off of a horse, Attila was most likely a heavy drinker who frequently rode inebriated.

No doubt many in Hannibal’s army were drunk on elephant-back. In fact, most armies throughout the centuries would drink alcohol both before and after doing battle. That’s a lot of drunken horsemen. There have been plenty of drunken horse-drawn carriage drivers. Bicycles were not invented until the 1800’s. But as soon as they were, drunk people undoubtedly began falling off of them.

In seemingly every culture for thousands of years, there has been a consistent awareness that outright drunkenness is undesirable. Moderation had always been tolerated to a degree because alcohol had been literally more important to life than water. The fact that drunkenness is repeatedly referenced through history as being a bad thing proves that there have always been abusers of alcohol.

This was no less evident during the Industrial Revolution when large numbers of people would work together in ways that hadn’t been practical before. Even having to be at work by a certain time was new. Workers were routinely warned by their employers not to over indulge in alcohol, as it would cause accidents. When the message exists, the problem has been clearly noticeable. Accidents related to alcohol were obviously common during the Industrial Revolution.

The first actual drunk driving arrest happened in 1897 in London when George Smith crashed his cab into a building. When the automobile was first introduced in America, it was not regulated in any way. At first, cars were a curiosity for the rich and eccentric. Then, they became a new business opportunity for anybody with the tools and materials to cobble together an engine and some wheels.

As cars became more common, local governments began finding ways to tax them long before enacting laws for their use. In 1917 for example, the Division of Automobile Licensing and Registration of South Carolina was created. The division issued licenses and collected fees. But there were still no vehicle laws to follow.

America drove right through Prohibition without official automobile regulation.

early 1900s taxi

In 1920, the Eighteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution became law. The amendment was called the Volstead act. The nation went dry ... sorta. Of course, there was widespread circumventing of the Volstead Act and organized crime flourished.

Alaska had already enacted its territorial "Bone Dry" law in 1918, two years before the Volstead Act. Bootleggers thrived making their own alcohol. In the business district of Anchorage, an underground network of tunnels connected speakeasies with their suppliers and protected them from the Territorial Police. Across the country, speakeasies were essentially hidden saloons. Although nobody was being arrested for it, people were drinking and driving.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 1930s that regulations for using automobiles began popping up.

Indiana began issuing driver's licenses in 1935. There was no test. Each driver had to purchase a license for 50 cents to help pay for salaries and equipment used by the Highway Patrol.

In 1939, Indiana became the first state to enact a BAC law. The Blood Alcohol Content level to determine a drunk driver was set at a .15 or nearly twice today’s .08 national legal limit.

1969 was the year that popular alcoholic Teddy Kennedy (1932-2009) drove his car off of Dike Bridge which spans between Chappaquiddick Island and Martha’s Vineyard. Kennedy managed to swim to safety, while his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne died trapped in his car under the water. Kennedy suspiciously waited a few hours before alerting authorities. I personally believe he was waiting to sober up a bit before confronting police. While ‘The Chappaquiddick Incident’ may have kept him out of the Whitehouse, it did not end his political career and the topic now has all but faded away.

Mary Jo Kopechne on the cover of Beyond Magazine

The 80s were a busy decade in the world of drunk driving. MADD was established and came into prominence in the 1980’s. Court ordered ignition interlock devices began appearing in the late 1980s. In 1984 the national minimum legal drinking age was set to 21.

This set stage for Zero Tolerance legislation passed in 1998. The argument was that if it was illegal for you to drink, than any amount of drinking mixed with driving equaled a worse offense than the usual drunk driving.

March 24, 1989 was the date of the Exxon Valdez oil spill considered to be the worst environmental disaster ever caused by a single person. Long-time alcoholic and Ship’s Master, Joseph Hazelwood drunkenly ran the ship into Bligh Reef and released around 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. Clearly booze mixes with boats the same way it mixes with cars, disastrously.

Beginning in the early 1990s, states began individually adopting .08 as the legal limit for BAC. It took until July of 2004 for the entire United States to adopt .08 as the national standard.

For thousands of years, alcohol has played a vital role in our existence and has been an intricate part of society. The common thread through all this time has been an acceptance of moderation and a warning of overindulgence. Our current lives in America are so vastly different from anything that could be imagined by a medieval knight, or an ancient Roman farmer. But our attitudes toward alcohol are amazingly similar. Whether operating heavy machinery in the Industrial Revolution, riding a chariot in ancient Rome, or driving a car on 'Old' Route 66 today, the problem of drunk driving has always existed in one form or another. This is continually evidenced by the same message being communicated for thousands of years. Don’t over indulge if you have somewhere to go.

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