This Isn’t Quantum Physics: Don’t Drive Drunk

January 23, 2012

Despite human innovation and evolution, our species still engages in behaviors best described as utterly stupid. How many times can a person walk through the same door and forget that it needs to be pushed, not pulled, from the outside? How many commercials, lectures, and campaigns have focused on drinking and driving? Still, over 4 million adults will get behind a wheel intoxicated this year, causing 10,839 unnecessary deaths.

Alcohol consumption dates back to ancient history.  According to historians, slaves building the Great Pyramid at Giza drank about one and a half gallons of beer a day.  Many soldiers consumed alcohol before and after battle, and travelers relied on alcohol as a safer alternative to water.  Water required purification and pumps to push it above ground, whereas alcohol required less work for safe consumption.  As a result, alcohol use became widely accepted in popular culture.

Acceptance of alcohol came with limits as many spoke out against blatant drunkenness and overindulgent behavior.  Still, people continued to perform dangerous acts under the influence.  Before cars, sailors, cyclists, and horsemen engaged in drunken sailing, cycling, and horseback riding.  With the invention of automobiles, man quickly began to drive while intoxicated.  In 1897 (a year after Henry Ford built his first car), George Smith, a London cab driver, managed to crash his taxi into a building while under the influence.  He made history as the first documented arrest for drunk driving on September 10th of that year.

In the U.S., very few states implemented regulations for automobiles until the early 1900s.  New York set the precedent with its laws regulating drunk driving in 1910, closely followed by California and other states.  Enforcement of this law proved difficult without a viable method of measuring drunkenness.  Then, in the 1920s, a prohibition on liquor was imposed on the nation with the 18th Amendment to the Bill of Rights. With the Prohibition, government officials abandoned anti-drunk driving laws because the nation was supposedly dry. However, flappers, Jazz age men, and others still drove intoxicated though.  Only in 1953, when Robert Borkestein invented the Breathalyzer, did police officers find a foolproof way to assess alcohol levels and convict drunkards.

Interestingly, the original blood alcohol content level (BAC) that qualified as intoxication was 0.15.  Today that limit has decreased to 0.08, and many still advocate for a lower limit.  According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, even a blood alcohol level as low as .05 would have effects on steering, ability to track moving objects, coordination, and response to emergency driving situations.  Granted, in the early 20th century fewer people existed, fewer cars existed, and cars ran significantly slower.  The fastest car in the 1920s, the Bugatti Type 35 B,reached 130 mph. Now, the Barabus TKR can reach top speeds of 270 mph and go from 0 to 60 in 1.67 seconds (  Higher speeds and more people on the roads mean more accidents.

As cars and roads became more common, the number of inebriated individuals driving increased leading to more alcohol related driving accidents and arrests. From 1924 to 1925, the AAA survey of nine major cities (St. Paul, Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, Omaha, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Dallas) showed an increase in the number of arrests for drunk driving.  Still, total automobile arrests in each of these cities did not exceed 2,000 per year.  Chicago, for example, contained a population of roughly 2.7 million in the 1920s, but only 1,601 of them were arrested for drunk driving in 1925.  Today, Chicago’s population remains steady at 2.7 million, but in 2010, DUI arrests reached 41,900.

Even with increased arrests, drunk driving still prevails and, ultimately, kills. In 1949, Margaret Mitchell, the writer of Gone with the Wind, famously passed away at the age of 49 after being struck down by a speeding vehicle; its driver was intoxicated and driving on the wrong side of the road.  In 1997, Princess Diana collided with a tunnel when her drunken chauffeur sped up to supposedly avoid the paparazzi.  These cases are only two of many.  Every minute another person is injured in an alcohol-related crash, and, according to the AAA, every 48 minutes drunk driving kills someone. To make matters worse, drunk drivers are usually not arrested until after their 80th offense.

Drunk driving makes very little sense, but people have even less sense when they are intoxicated, so strong deterrents are required to make a dent in drunk driving rates and accidents.  With the invention of the ignition interlock device (a device that refuses to start a car unless the person’s BAC level remains below 0.08), fewer inebriated drivers reach the roads.  Signs and other deterrents can also have a meaningful impact on the foggy minds of drunkards.  Signs such as this one or this – both from – can remind them that driving drunk is a bad idea.

Perhaps one day no driver will get behind a wheel under the influence of alcohol.  Until then, we must work towards this goal with education, awareness, and deterrents by way of signs, legislation, and advocacy.

– A. Li

Category: Regulations

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