The Evolution of Drunk Driving Laws in California


Your parents or grandparents might remember the days when a drunk driver was given a warning and then escorted home by the police and told to sleep it off. Maybe you watched Mad Men and wondered if drunk driving was just a way of life back in the 60s. Until late in that decade, drunk driving laws relied on the officer’s subjective evaluations, rather than on the chemical tests that are now mandated by the law, to determine whether someone was driving under the influence of alcohol. Thus, it was not unusual, especially outside of large urban areas, for the police to find “old Jimmy” weaving his truck on his way home again and either drive him home or give him a slow-moving escort.   At worst, most drunk drivers could expect fines and a lecture by a judge. Back then, there was no driving license suspension or mandatory drunk driving courses.

While chemical tests were available, California law did not mandate that a driver submit to a chemical test. It was not until the late 60s that the legislature enacted what is called the “implied consent” law. Implied consent laws were based on the premise that a driver using the roads in California impliedly consents to a blood alcohol test if he or she is legally arrested for suspicion of drunk driving. Even with the enactment of the implied consent law, the penalties for drunken driving were nowhere near as severe as they are today.

Another influence on the California DUI laws was the increasing involvement of the federal government on the state’s drunk driving policies. In 1967, the federal government issued new standards, which for the first time included drunk driving standards. These standards required the states to develop drunk driving laws to achieve a reduction in traffic accidents caused by drunken driving. Back then, and until 1990, the threshold for drunk driving was .10% blood alcohol content. The federal government enforced theses standards by withholding federal highway funds to any state that did not comply with the new standards.

The early 1980s saw the emergence of citizen’s groups, most notably Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). These groups mobilized the public to demand legislation to reduce drunk driving on the roads across this nation. During this decade, a proliferation of drunk driving laws was enacted by the California legislature, including laws that increased punitive sanctions against the drunk driver. Many of these new laws addressed specific drunk driving violations. For example, laws that provided for increasing administrative and criminal punishments for subsequent DUIs and laws that specifically addressed accidents or injuries cause by drunk driving were added to the books. There is no question that the public’s heightened awareness of the dangers of drunk driving pushed the legislature to enact a flurry of drunk driving laws during the 1980s. The 1980s certainly represented a sea change in the public’s attitudes towards and government enforcement of drunken driving. Many of the laws now on the books were first enacted during that decade.

In 1990 the blood alcohol content limit was reduced from .10% to .08%. Six months later, the California legislature enacted laws that provided for the immediate suspension of a driver’s license to drive upon being arrested for drunken driving (Per Se Laws). Since then, the most notable changes surrounding drunk driving laws in recent years have to do with the enforcement of administrative laws. This will be addressed in my next blog post.

The laws regulating drunken driving in California are no simple matter. Even a first-time DUI can have serious consequences. If you have been arrested for a DUI, don’t go it alone. An experienced DUI defense attorney can help you navigate the complex laws, both criminal and administrative, and advocate for your best defense.

Should you have any questions regarding any DUI or criminal matter, contact William Weinberg at or 949-474-8008.

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