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A history of DUI laws in the US

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A Brief History Of DWI Laws In the United States

Nearly every person who is alive today has always known the existence of laws against driving while intoxicated (DWI) or under the influence of other illegal substances; however, the regulations and rules regarding travel after using alcohol or drugs have developed in different manners across the United States. Learning about the history of DWI laws is beneficial to understanding why New Hampshire’s DWI laws exist in their current state.

Within the United States, the first jurisdiction to establish laws against driving while intoxicated was New York, whose laws took effect in 1910. It was not long before California and other states followed suit. The original punishment for a DWI conviction was 12 months in the local jail and a monetary fine of $1,000.00. However, these first DWI laws simply prohibited driving under the influence of alcohol. There was not an established level of intoxication that qualified as drunk driving.

It was not until 1936 that scientist Robert Borkenstein developed the first “Drunkometer.” This device, whose appearance resembled a balloon, required a person to breathe into it, and the breath sample was then used to determine whether or not the individual was intoxicated. Shortly thereafter, in 1938, the National Safety Council and the American Medical Associate began to analyze the issue of automobile accidents in relation to intoxication. Each group independently recommended creating a specific BAC standard of .15%.

In 1953, Mr. Borkenstein created the first incarnation of today’s modern Breathalyzer machine. This new device utilized photometry and chemical oxidation to gauge alcohol concentration. When the machine measured the amount of alcohol vapor within a breath sample, it could calculate the level of alcohol within the bloodstream.

Universal Blood Alcohol Content Standards

Throughout the 1960’s, driving while intoxicated was classified as a “folk crime”. For most young men, it was considered something of a rite of passage. Although harsh penalties for this crime had already been established by law, they were rarely enforced. Most defendants would request a jury trial at their initial arraignment, wherein they were acquitted an overwhelming majority of the time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration strove to demonstrate to lawmakers graphic photos and statistics that displayed the horrors that were associated with drunk driving. As a result of their efforts, a number of states lowered their legally permissible BAC levels to .10% or .12%.

Even with how simple it was to use the newer version of the Breathalyzer machine, it was not until the mid-1970’s that federal and state law enforcement agencies and officials began to implement tighter legal limits to halt the spread of DWI related automobile accidents throughout the United States. In 1974, most states started to pass per se DWI laws. These laws eliminated the state’s burden of proof to demonstrate the alcohol had affected the motorist’s ability to effectively operate a motor vehicle. Legally, they were only required to prove that the motorist was operating an automobile and that their blood alcohol content levels were above the established legal limit. In modern times, all 50 states have enacted various versions of the per se DWI laws. This is why a conviction for driving while intoxicated in the state of New Hampshire only requires a demonstration of a BAC level that is over the legal limit (.08%).

In 1980, the well-known advocacy group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, was established by Candy Lightner after a horrific accident in which her 13 year old daughter was killed by an intoxicated motorist as she walked home after a school carnival. The offending motorist had already accrued three prior convictions for driving while intoxicated, and at the time of the accident, had been released on bail for a hit and run incident that occurred only two days prior. Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other later groups, such as Students Against Drunk Driving, began to lobby federal lawmakers and Congress to create and enact stricter penalties and punishments for motorists who were convicted of DWIs. When it came to creating tougher standards, their efforts were ultimately successful. As a result, New Hampshire’s own DWI laws changed.

Modern Changes to National DWI Laws

It is only within the last two decades that national standards have been created for DWI laws. In the year 2000, then President Bill Clinton created a transportation appropriations bill, which required all 50 states to lower their legally permissible BAC levels to .08%. If these new state laws were not enacted by October 2003, then the states risked losing federal funding for highway construction. It was the federal government’s contention that lowering legal limits from .10% to .08% would reduce alcohol related accidents and fatalities by 7% annually, which would translate to nearly 500 lives being saved each year. Naturally, it did not take long for states to enact the new protocols.

As of October 1st, 2003, 45 states out of 50 had passed blood alcohol content laws setting the new permissible limits to .08%. By July of the following year (2004), all 50 states had enacted similar legislation. Of course, New Hampshire'’ own DWI laws mirror this recent trend. In some cases, a blood alcohol content level of .08% is enough to merit a conviction for DWI. For commercial drivers and those under the age of 21 years, the permissible BAC levels are even lower.

Make no mistake about it. New Hampshire has enacted some of the strictest DWI laws in the country – even above and beyond what is required by the federal government. To be convicted of a DWI in our state can bring a myriad of consequences, and none of them are pleasant.

If you have been arrested for and charged with a DWI in New Hampshire, contact our law firm today. Your initial consultation is free, and our experienced NH DWI lawyers has devoted years to fighting on behalf of their clients and ensuring that their legal rights are protected. When it comes to a DWI, don’t take chances. Trust one of the state’s leading authorities.



Disclaimer: Past results do not guarantee a future outcome. Results include cases in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Attorney Dan Hynes is admitted to practice law only in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This website may be considered advertising. Contacting us does not create an attorney/client relationship and the information on this site is not legal advice and may be inaccurate or not applicable to your case. Each case is different.

Mailing Address: Dan Hynes PO BOX 598 Merrimack, NH 03054