80 Years Ago Tonight: The Debut of the First Weapon in the War on Drunk Driving

Millions of people across America will celebrate New Year’s Eve tonight.  Their festivities will include dancing, dining and drinking, but hopefully not driving.  Just about everyone understands the dangers caused to themselves and others when they get behind the wheel while impaired.  It is also very obvious and clear to everyone what their future holds if police catch them driving under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol before they hurt someone.

It wasn’t always this way.

Tonight marks the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the war on drunk driving.  It was on December 31st, 1938 that a new device known simply as “The Drunkometer” made its debut.  It was the creation of a University of Indiana biochemistry professor named Rolla Hager, who had been working on it for years.  A person  suspected of drinking would blow into a blow into a balloon which held a chemical solution.  If a person had alcohol in their system, the ballon would change colors.  How much the person had been drinking could be determined by how drastically the color of the balloon changed.

The Drunkometer, 1940
Photo Credit: Getty

In the years prior to the drink-meter, drinking and driving was a problem in America that was increasing at a blistering pace.  Prohibition, the nationwide ban on alcohol, had lasted from 1920 to 1933.  When the ban was lifted, there were more drivers and faster cars.  Injuries and deaths resulting from impaired driving skyrocketed.  Chicago reported  their number of alcohol related crashes increased by four times from 1933 to 1934.   When police tried to prove in court that someone was drunk after a fatal accident or one that involved injuries occurred, it was nearly impossible.  Reasonable doubt was easy to find when there was no concrete scientific evidence to be provided by prosecutors.  The contraption was fairly large, about as big as a suitcase, but the state of Indiana bought nine and began using them.  After the first conviction, which resulted in only a $5 fine, the story made international news.  Sometimes Hagar would ride along with police to see how his invention was being used.  He was amazed at how many more people were driving drunk than he ever suspected.

Drunkometer at Indiana State Fair
Photo Credit: Indiana Legal Archive

Police all over the country began using the drunkometer until in 1954, the breathalyzer was invented by a colleague of Hager’s from the University of Indiana.  The breathalyzer was much smaller, easier to use, and more accurate.  The drunkometer was finished, but deserves credit for getting the ball rolling.

Despite the efforts of the drunkometer and breathalyzer, driving while impaired continued to be a major problem and unnecessary cause of death in the United States.  By the late 1970s, there were over 30,000 alcohol related traffic accidents each year in America.  Alcohol was a factor in 60 percent of all traffic related deaths in 1979.  In the past 40 years, due to stricter laws, organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, educational campaigns, rideshare platforms, and many other reasons, the number of alcohol related accidents has dropped to around 10,000 per year. Still too many.

Thank you to Rolla Hager, who began the war on drunk driving 80 years ago tonight, and all who have fought in that war since.  There is no telling how many of us and the ones we love  are alive today because of your efforts.

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