September 10, 1897 – The first DUI arrest

Any unlucky passenger riding in 25 year old George Smith’s London cab on this day in 1897 may not have received the safe transport they were looking for. Instead, they may have witnessed the first arrest for driving an automobile drunk. It wasn’t difficult for police officers to identify their suspect, as Smith had done a bit more than just swerve over the yellow line. Police arrived to find that he had smashed his cab into the side of a building. Smith was arrested and ultimately pled guilty to driving under the influence of alcohol. He was fined 25 shillings. There is no record of him operating an unregistered taxi cab, as it wasn’t until December 6, 1897, that London became the first city in the world to introduce licensed cabs.

While Smith admitted his guilt, it wasn’t until 1931 that police had a reliable, scientific way of testing a person to see if they were in fact drunk at the scene. Its inventor, Rolla Harger, named the DUI testing machine the Drunkometer. The device was first used 21 years after the first US laws against drunk driving were implemented in New York.

Above: Drunkometer. Top: A 1897 London taxi, perhaps similar to that of George Smith.

The Drunkometer relied on the suspected drunk driver blowing into a balloon and filling it with air. The on scene officer would then attach the balloon to a hose that was connected to a device with potassium permanganate and sulfuric acid inside. When these substances mixed on their  own they created a purple liquid. Add in trace amounts of alcohol, such as that from the breath of a drunk person who had recently blown into said balloon, the liquid would turn yellow. The faster the change in color, the drunker the person. That’s science at its finest.

Today, driving under the influence remains a problem all over the world. In 2018 10,511 people were killed in drunk driving crashes in the United States. To put it plainly, DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.

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