Arresting the first drunk driver and the result

It was on Friday 10th September 1897 that a London cabdriver named George Smith drove his taxi into a building and became the first person in Britain to be arrested for drunk driving. He pleaded guilty and was fined 25 shillings. The checking police officers said they ‘knew that Smith was drunk because he acted drunk’ – he had driven that cab into a wall, after all and ‘because he said he was!’

What they lacked, though, was a scientific way to prove someone was too intoxicated to drive, even if he or she wouldn’t admit it.  It wasn’t long before blood tests were introduced – but those were messy and needed to be performed by a doctor.  Then there were urine tests – but those were even messier, not to mention unreliable and expensive.

It was in 1931 that Rolla Neil Harger, a toxicologist at Indiana University in the USA, came up with a solution – a breathalyzer device he called the ‘Drunkometer’. It was simple – all the suspected drinker had to do was blow into a balloon!  The tester would then attached the balloon to a tube filled with a purple fluid – a mix of Potassium Permanganate and Sulphuric Acid – and release the air into the tube.  Any alcohol on a person’s breath would change the colour of the fluid from purple to yellow – and the quicker the change, the drunker the person!

In 1938 Rolla Harger was one of the five people chosen to be on the subcommittee of the National Safety Council that drafted the model legislation that set the blood alcohol content for driving under the influence.  He was awarded the patent in 1936.

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