The Early History of DUI Laws in the United States

By Jonathan Blecher on March 28, 2017

Alcohol-related traffic accidents account for more than 40 percent of all traffic fatalities in the United States, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA.) To help combat this alarming statistic, all 50 U.S. states have laws against driving under the influence of alcohol or other controlled substances (DUI). Sometimes also called DWI (driving while intoxicated) or OVI (operating a vehicle while intoxicated), these laws first started to appear in the early part of the 20th century. Today, nearly one in every ten criminal arrests in the United States is for DUI, according to the NHTSA.

History of DUI Laws

The problem of driving while intoxicated is nearly as old as the automobile itself and is not specifically an American problem. In fact, the first DUI arrest occurred in London in 1897,according to, when George Smith ran his cab into the side of a building. (He pled guilty and was fined 25 shillings.) In the United States, Massachusetts was the first state to enact a DUI statute, in 1907. They were followed by California and New York State in 1910. The other 45 states (at that time) followed
soon after that. Early laws prohibited driving while intoxicated, but didn’t define what that meant. It wasn’t until nearly twenty years later that the first blood alcohol limit was set.

Prohibition and DUI Enforcement

Prohibition in the United States, which lasted between 1920 and 1933, helped to reduce (but not eliminate completely) driving under the influence in the United States. Perhaps even more effective at controlling the problem in this era was the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed. This forced many Americans to give up their cars or put off buying one for more than a decade.

The repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 ended prohibition and made drinking alcohol legal again in the United States. As more and more Americans became able to afford an automobile, the problem of drunk driving began to rear it’s ugly head again. In our next post, we’ll look at how DUI laws changed in the prosperous post-World War II era.

This is the first post of a four-part series on the history of DUI laws in the United States and their enforcement. We hope you’ll visit again over the next few weeks as we discuss how DUI laws in the United States have evolved over the past decades.

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