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> Driving Under the Influence
 
Dr. Rolla N. Harger (right) during a demonstration of the Drunkometer.
Dr. Rolla N. Harger (right) during a demonstration of the Drunkometer.

Until the 1930s, a driver detained on suspicion of intoxication underwent police evaluation of his or her speech, eyes, gait, odor, color, and behavior to determine whether excessive amounts of alcohol had been consumed. Blood samples sometimes were drawn, but that was an intrusive process. Physicians searched for a quick, easy, accurate way to measure blood alcohol levels.

Dr. Rolla N. Harger, a chemistry professor at Indiana University School of Medicine, constructed a blood alcohol measuring device that used a breath sample blown into a balloon. In 1936, Harger received a patent for the device, which he named the Drunkometer. In 1939, Indiana passed the first state law defining intoxication in terms of blood alcohol percentage. Indiana State Police routinely used the Drunkometer, and other states soon adopted it.

In the early 1950s, Robert F. Borkenstein, an Indiana State Police officer, developed the Breathalyzer. Small and portable, the Breathalyzer was easier to operate than the Drunkometer and provided faster, more reliable results.

Public concern about driving while intoxicated took many forms. Roadside signs advertising Burma-Shave often dealt with social issues, including the burdens that intoxicated drivers place on society. The rhymes, wry humor, and serial format attracted widespread attention. Some signs offered dark, humorous reminders to drive carefully or suffer the consequences.

The first "public service" Burma-Shave rhymes appeared in 1935. "We'd grown to be a part of the roadside," company president Leonard Odell explained, "and had a duty to do what we could about the mounting accident rate."

Burma-Shave signs, 1959
Burma-Shave signs, 1959
MADD ribbon, 1988
MADD ribbon, 1988

Founded in 1980 by Candace Lightner, the mother of a 13-year-old drunk-driving victim in California, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (later renamed Mothers Against Drunk Driving) successfully lobbied for a Presidential Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving (1982), the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (1984), and a 2000 law that lowered the threshhold of intoxication to .08% blood alcohol content. The combination of MADD campaigns, drunk driving laws, police enforcement, and public information campaigns resulted in a significant decrease in alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities.

MADD began Project Red Ribbon in 1986 to raise public awareness of the dangers of driving while intoxicated. Tying a MADD red ribbon onto a car door handle, outside mirror, or antenna became a symbol of citizen demand for safe driving free of impairment from alcohol. The campaign's title later was changed to "Tie One On for Safety," a defiant twist on the colloquial phrase "tie one on," meaning the act of having a drink. Local MADD chapters distributed red ribbons during holiday seasons and at other times to promote their cause.

MADD also started local chapters, supported legislation at the state level, helped to establish the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints, and supported the use of ignition interlock breath analyzers.

Guardian ignition interlock breath analyzer, about 1987.
Guardian ignition interlock breath analyzer, about 1987.

In the late 1980s, some courts began ordering persons convicted of drunk driving to use an ignition interlock breath analyzer, a device that prevented a car from starting unless the driver passed a breath alcohol test. A green light on the device indicated that blood alcohol content was below the legal limit, and the car would start. A yellow light indicated that the driver was approaching the legal limit. A red light indicated that the driver was intoxicated, and the car would not start.

Guardian Interlock pioneered the production of breath alcohol ignition interlock devices and facilitated the integration of the devices with judicial systems. In the 1980s and 1990s, a growing number of state legislatures and state motor vehicle departments approved the device for widespread use. Over a 20-year period, Guardian Interlock refined its models from pass/fail operation to downloaded printouts to specification of blood alcohol content by percentage. Ignition interlock devices have been proven effective at reducing repeat offenses and saving lives.

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