The History of California DUI Laws



A couple of generations ago, drunk driving was almost acceptable. You’ve probably heard about “one for the road” — it was a common refrain at parties and bars and the phrase was often used in songs and movies during the last century. Maybe you saw the many Mad Men episodes depicting the various characters driving while way too inebriated. That wasn’t artistic license, that happened back then – a lot. And it was not uncommon to hear the “funny” anecdotes like the one about old Uncle Joe driving home so drunk that he hit a tree. When the local sheriff arrived, they woke up Uncle Joe, who was slumped over the steering wheel snoozing, and escorted him home to sleep it off—warning him to lay off the booze as they left.

Yet, driving under the influence of alcohol has been unlawful almost since the time the first automobile hit the road. The first state to enact a law that made it illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol was New Jersey, although some claim New York had a law before New Jersey. The New Jersey law, enacted in 1906 had no specific threshold level. If the cop thought you were too drunk to be driving, you were arrested (or perhaps sent home with a warning). Other states soon followed New Jersey’s lead. I suppose since most people still got around in carriages during those day and horse and buggy driver could just as easily be arrested for drunken driving as the dapper gentleman driving a new-fangled horseless carriage.

But as cars became more common on the road, drunken driving became an increasingly dangerous problem. In the middle part of the last century, the blood alcohol content (BAC)at which someone was unlawfully drunk while driving was set at .15%. This BAC threshold was set after research was conducted in the 1930’s by the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council to determine at what point a driver was too intoxicated to drive.

Now back then, they didn’t have the sophisticated equipment that the police use now. The first device for testing alcohol levels was called a “Drunkometer.” (Apparently, they didn’t they have particularly sophisticated language to describe alcohol testing equipment either.) The Drunkometer was invented in 1936 and was a simple device wherein a person blew into a rubber balloon, which contained chemicals that would react with alcohol on someone’s breath. The level of alcohol in the person’s system would be determined by the change in color of the chemicals. This was essentially the first roadside testing device and the precursor to the breathalyzer devices. The Drunkometer was used for over 20 years only to be replaced by the Breathalyzer, which was invented in 1954.

Still, back then, drunken driving was commonplace and, while not necessarily something to celebrate, it was accepted and often, if punished, it was with a slap on the hand.

Enter Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. Everything started to change once MADD began a campaign against driving under the influence. Only four years later, the nation made it mandatory that the states raise their minimum drinking age to 21 (before then, many states set the drinking level at 18). Laws started to get tougher on drunk drivers. But probably the biggest game changer was the campaign to change the cultural attitudes towards drunk driving. By 1998, the federal government enacted legislation to encourage the all states to lower the BAC threshold to .08% and in 2000, that became law.

Yes, there are still too many people who drive drunk but the numbers are decreasing. These days, it is common (and wise) to designate a sober driver or forego the keys and call a cab or rideshare. No one thinks it cool to drive drunk anymore. The drunk driving laws and the evolving cultural mores have resulted in significantly less drunk driving deaths. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, drunk driving deaths in the United States have almost halved since 1980, even though the population has increased in that time by approximately 40% in that time period. Now that is progress.

William Weinberg is an Orange County attorney with extensive experience defending DUIs and is available to consult with you about your DUI matter. You can contact Mr. Weinberg at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or email him at

Posted in:

Comments are closed.