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A History of DUI Laws

Alcohol, more specifically regulating the use, distribution, and legal consequences of acts committed by those under the influence, has been a long struggle in the United States.  It was the late 19th, early 20th century that saw a boom in car sales in America.  In 1910, ten years before prohibition, New York became the first state to put a DUI law into place.  California was the next state, and the rest soon followed.  Before and after Prohibition, when the DUI laws were in their initial stages they simply stated that those who were found driving under the influence could face legal consequences.  Punishments for DUI offenses ranged from fines to possibly jail time.  However, during these earlier years it was hard to measure the level of intoxication someone was experiencing.  Law enforcement wasn’t even sure what they were trying to measure, besides behavior.  And the courts didn’t have a clear definition as to what constituted an inebriated driver.

It was the American Medical Association in the 1930s that put together a committee to find the most common causes of accidents involving automobiles.  It was during this research that the committee found an alarming connection between alcohol consumption and auto accidents.  Another organization at this time known as the National Safety Council, was conducting research on how blood and alcohol levels in one’s system affected their motor and decision making skills.  They were trying to develop a legal limit for Blood/Alcohol Concentration (BAC) for people getting behind the wheel.  The first BAC that was used for a majority of states’ legal limit for intoxication was 0.15%, which is what the National Safety Council released in 1938.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that the DUI laws in many of the states became a lot stricter.  Most of the changes to the laws (the harsher penalties, and punishments) were born out of community outrage.  Groups put together for the sole purpose of raising awareness of and ending drunk driving (like MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving), were some of the loudest, most persistent voices in giving out tougher penalties for those found guilty of DUI.

In 1984 the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed, which stated that any state that sold alcohol to minors under the age of 21 would be subject to withheld revenue from the federal government, which effectively raised the legal drinking age in the U.S. to 21.  The laws pertaining to those drivers under the legal drinking age have also changed.  There had traditionally been a zero tolerance policy toward underage drivers, however studies have found in the last couple of decades that legally using products like mouth wash could result in a .01% or .02% on a breathalyzer.  And so in some states, the legal limit for a driver under the age of 21 is .01%.

Today the national legal limit for BAC is .08%, however, some states like Colorado enforce a legal BAC limit of .05%.  Punishments and penalties today can range anywhere from losing your license, getting an ignition interlock device installed in your car, or even going to prison.

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