An American History: On Drinking, Driving, and the Law

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As long as there have been alcohol and cars, there has been drunk driving.

Fermented, alcoholic beverages were first produced by humans around 7000 BC. They were used to celebrate a myriad of occasions, as well as for religious purposes. Even when the colonists first came to America, they brought beer with them on the boat. In fact, many believed alcohol was safer than water, mainly because water could be contaminated, while the process of creating alcohol made the beverage safer to drink.

While fermented beverages have played a role in human history throughout time, Americans have had a particularly difficult time dealing with its effect on the population and controlling how it is consumed. In Colonial times, it was acceptable to drink alcohol, but it was considered a moral weakness and a sin to become intoxicated. It was believed that by having enough willpower, a person would find their path back to sobriety.

In the 1700s, a Philadelphia physician named Benjamin Rush proposed the idea that alcoholism was a disease that couldn’t be cured by willpower. At the time, his ideas didn’t have a huge impact, but today, we use his theory to help individuals who have problems with alcohol.

How alcohol is viewed and controlled in the U.S. has taken wild swings, including being completely outlawed during Prohibition. However, as history has revealed, this didn’t stop people from consuming alcohol. It just drove them underground. Knowing they couldn’t win, lawmakers repealed Prohibition laws and taxed alcohol so that they could at least benefit from its sale.

The U.S. and Drinking

The U.S. has a conservative view of alcohol. Since the early days when religious groups dictated how and when someone could drink, there have also been those who have bent and broken the rules when it came to drinking. Being intoxicated may have been a sin, but that didn’t stop people from drinking to get drunk. To this day, how people view and consume alcohol is problematic.

Countries that allow teens 18 years old or younger to drink have fewer occasions of dangerous drinking as compared to the U.S. That’s not to say that teens don’t consume alcohol in these countries. They do. They just consume it in a way that doesn’t result in intoxication.

Stricter alcohol laws don’t stop the consumption of alcohol, though. It just drives secrecy. If Prohibition taught us anything, it’s that people will find a way to drink no matter what the law says — and that is still evident with U.S. teens and those under 21.

They still drink. They just do so where it’s harder to get caught. And that isn’t just confined to clandestine binge drinking at college parties. One in 10 high school students drink and drive, and statistics have shown that teens are beginning to drink at younger and younger ages.

The History of Drinking and Driving

New York was the first state to pass laws against drinking and driving — and that happened in 1910. Other states soon followed. The early laws forbade driving while intoxicated, but they didn’t set any standards of what qualified as being drunk. Those weren’t decided until 1938 when the American Medical Association and the National Safety Council through research found that 0.15 percent should be the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration. In 2000, the blood alcohol concertation percentage was changed to 0.08.

In 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving was established after the founder’s 13-year-old daughter was killed by a repeat-offender drunk driver. The group was incredibly successful in raising awareness about drunk driving and getting the drinking age increased to 21. However, it hasn’t completely rid the U.S. of drunk driving. In 2014, for instance, 31 percent of all driving fatalities were caused by alcohol, and approximately 88,000 people die per year from alcohol-related causes that are not driving related.

Different states have different laws when it comes to determining if a driver is operating a vehicle while intoxicated. Some states allow sobriety checkpoints to be set up, while others don’t, and the decision came to pass after the 1990 court case of Michigan vs. Sitz 496 U.S. 444. There are also a variety of other court cases that have changed how blood tests and breathalyzers are handled by law enforcement or what evidence is permissible in court, and each state has their own rules.

Getting a DUI can have major effects on a person’s life — impacting their jobs, family and social life. Drinking and driving is life-changing — and that’s assuming no one is killed during the accident. It only takes a split second.

Solutions? 

Alcohol is a legal drug, which means that as long as the person is of age, they have the opportunity and ability to partake in drinking. However, teens are still able to get access to alcohol. Our systems need to stop relying on telling people not to drink and drive — it’s really just not working.

Instead, some have offered up the idea of a stronger prevention and rewards system, like making transportation more accessible and having companies offer incentives for groups of partiers to either designate a driver or call a taxi. Additionally, lowering the drinking age could certainly help, the way it has in other countries.

America’s history with alcohol is a complex one, and there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to the question of how to stop drinking and driving and underage consumption. Stricter laws probably aren’t the solution — and history has revealed that they often do little to stop drinking anyway.

Regardless, the next time you’re out enjoying a cold one, consider calling an Uber (or Lyft, if you’re feeling hipster). Drinking can be fun, but when you do so in at least a reasonably smart way, your country, loved ones and liver will thank you in the end.