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First in the Midwest: A look at Indiana's unique role in the history of drunk-driving enforcement

by Mike McCabe ~ October 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
In the spring of 2013, the National Transportation Safety Board unveiled a series of recommendations designed to curb drunk driving, a problem that then NTSB chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman described as a “national epidemic.”
The centerpiece of the plan was a proposal for states to reduce their legal blood alcohol concentration limits from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.
Such efforts have seemingly become commonplace since groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving began working more than 30 years ago to raise awareness of the dangers posed by alcohol-impaired driving. During that time, BAC limits that once varied considerably — and were often set at much higher levels — began dropping, first toward 0.10 and eventually to the currently mandated level of 0.08.
Although BAC limits have long served as the foundation of drunk-driving laws across the country, it wasn’t until decades after the American love affair with automobiles began that technological advances made it possible for intoxication to be defined by objectively measurable blood alcohol levels.
Early efforts to combat drunk driving instead relied on far more subjective methods that were often inconclusive and, if criminal charges were filed, vulnerable to attack in court. But in 1931, Dr. Rolla Harger, a chemistry professor at Indiana University, developed the first breath tester, a device he patented and called “the Drunkometer.”
The Drunkometer was a portable mechanism that captured a subject’s breath in a balloon and then passed it through a chemical solution. If the subject’s breath contained alcohol, the solution would change colors, and the alcohol content could be measured.
Thanks to Harger’s innovation, Indiana soon claimed center stage in the effort to prevent drunk driving.
Harger began field testing his device in cooperation with local police, and though it had not yet been approved for official use, the Drunkometer quickly proved that driving under the influence was not uncommon.
That finding was consistent with the dramatic, nationwide rise in drunk-driving deaths (up 400 percent in the first six months of 1934) that followed the repeal of Prohibition.
Then, in August 1937, a pair of Hoosiers, Roy and Neva Gordon, became the first Americans to be arrested and charged with drunk driving after failing a Drunkometer breath test.
The test was administered after they were involved in a three-car accident in Marion County. The drunk-driving charges were later dismissed because witnesses to the accident were unsure who was actually driving the car, but the Gordons were both convicted of public intoxication based on their high BAC levels, as measured by Harger’s device.
Technology advances, policy changes
With law enforcement now able to reliably determine levels of intoxication, changes in public policy soon followed — with Indiana leading the way. In March 1939, it became the first state to impose a BAC limit on drivers.
It included a three-tiered approach, under which a subject with a BAC level of less than 0.05 percent was considered not under the influence of alcohol. A BAC level of between 0.05 percent and 0.15 percent was to be considered relevant evidence in a drunk-driving prosecution.
Only subjects with BACs in excess of 0.15 percent were to be presumed under the influence of alcohol (although the presumption remained rebuttable under the new law).
A month later, Maine followed Indiana’s lead, and eventually, all 50 states adopted BAC limits — most adhering to Indiana’s precedent.
Almost from the start, the United States lagged behind other countries in limiting blood alcohol concentration for drivers. Norway adopted a .05 standard more than 75 years before the NTSB urged states to do likewise last year. And Sweden adopted a .08 limit almost 60 years before that figure became the current U.S. standard.
Today, more than 100 countries on six continents observe BAC limits of 0.05 or less.
Roadside breath testing to determine blood alcohol concentration is still common practice, but the Drunkometer that helped blaze the trail has long since been replaced by improved technologies.
Ironically, it was another Hoosier — Robert Borkenstein, a photographer with the Indiana State Police who later also became a professor at Indiana University — who invented the first “Breathalyzer” in 1954.


First in the Midwest highlights noteworthy “firsts” in state government that occurred in this region. Please contact Mike McCabe, CSG Midwest director, if you have ideas for future articles.