How scientists and bureaucrats conspired to make American roads safer for driving.
Eighty years ago, science slipped into the backseat of your car, rolled down the windows, and made itself at home. It has remained there ever since.
In 1937, the first drivers were fined for drinking and driving based on evidence from a newfangled device called the “drunkometer.” It could figure out how much you’d been drinking based on what you exhaled, and it fundamentally reshaped our relationship with liquor, not to mention the relationship between lawmakers and local police.
Technology often arises to solve a problem, and this was no exception. Drunk driving had long been a problem. Before Henry Ford was born, drunk drivers got behind the reins, causing mayhem and destruction with horse and buggy.
As late as 1915, when Ford’s Model T’s were already tootling about, a Georgia man named Vince Sullivan tore down the road at a high rate of speed in his horse-drawn carriage. He swore loudly as he passed a church then swerved into a yard and tore up a garden fence. He was arrested for drunk driving (also referred to at the time as “drunk and driving” or “driving while drunk,” but never “drink driving,” as the British have awkwardly phrased it).
A report in the Macon Telegraph suggested the circular vagaries behind Sullivan’s offense: “The court holds that a drunk is a man who races a horse along a public highway, uses bad language and is so under the influence that that he can’t keep in the highway but tears down fences along the side of the road or street.”
But this definition gets at a central point: For years, behavior defined inebriety, not consumption. If you acted like a drunk and damaged property or person like a drunk, you were drunk and unfit for the road and subsequently could be jailed or fined.
For obvious reasons, this became more of an issue with the rise of the internal combustion engine. As horsepower increased and speed limits rose, the consequences of piloting a couple of tons of hurtling steel with impaired reflexes—and without a sober horse as co-pilot—grew more dire. The first recorded arrest for drunk driving in an automobile took place in London in 1897, when a sodden 25-year-old taxi driver plowed into a grocery wagon.
The first American laws against driving a motor vehicle while impaired were passed in New York in 1910, at which time the United State was home to nearly a half-million automobiles. And the goal of the constabulary soon shifted more to detecting drunk drivers before they caused damage or death.
At the outset, drunkenness was determined by observation. If a car was moving erratically, the police were empowered to pull it over and administer a field test. The officer would sniff the driver’s breath, and then would ask the suspect to follow the tip of a pencil with their eyes, stand on one foot, or walk a line the officer had drawn on the pavement in chalk. Another test was to ask someone to say “Methodist Episcopal” three times in a row.
Such tests were of course subject to grading on a curve. A well-known local doctor might be deemed sober enough to continue home, but a similarly soused warehouseman might be frogmarched off to the hoosegow to sleep it off and be levied a fine. Also, these tests lacked a certain scientific rigor.
So scientists showed up, clipboards in hand. In the 1920s, a Swedish toxicologist named Erik Widmark, a giant in forensic pharmacology, developed protocols for analyzing blood to determine how much alcohol a person had tippled. The early approach was intrusive—five small tubes of blood would be collected from your earlobe, and then a carefully measured portion placed in a small cup over a solution, which changed composition and color as the ethanol in the blood evaporated. (Five samples were needed for multiple tests to ensure reliability.) While Widmark’s blood tests were widely employed in Europe (Nazi Germany embraced them in 1938; Sweden established a limit of 0.08-percent blood alcohol in 1941), the blood test was largely resisted in the United States as being overly invasive.
Addressing the problem, several devices appeared soon after that could estimate how much alcohol was in your system by testing your breath, which science had calibrated to match the alcohol in your blood. Dr. Emil Bogen of California used chemicals held in a football bladder for his device; an inventor in Chicago named W.D. McNally developed a similar instrument that got wide play in the popular science press, although it never caught on.
In 1931, Dr. Rolla N. Harger of Indiana University developed and named a breath-based testing unit he called “the drunkometer” as a joke, but the name stuck. The suspect would be asked to inflate a balloon, the contents of which would then be passed through a purple mixture of potassium permanganate, sulfuric acid, and water. Trace amounts of alcohol would alter the purple color of the solution. This would be compared with the color of test tubes prepared from samples of people whose alcohol blood content levels were known.
By 1937 the results were accepted by state courts in Indiana; two drivers that year were fined $5 each for drunk driving. In 1939 Indiana passed the first state laws linking degrees of intoxication with alcohol blood levels, defining drunkenness as having a blood alcohol content of 0.15-percent—nearly double the common threshold of 0.08-percent today. “Science is replacing guesswork in obtaining evidence in drunken-driving cases,” The New York Timesreported.
Still, the drunkometer was cumbersome. So in 1954 a more refined version—called the Breathalyzer—was rolled out at the National Safety Congress, followed by tests in six communities in the U.S. and Canada. This device was developed by Lt. Robert Borkenstein, supervisor of the Indiana State Police Laboratory, who had help from Indiana State University. (Note to self: Do not mess with Indiana when it comes to drunk driving.)
The early version wasn’t exactly pocket-sized. It weighed 14 pounds and had a tube into which the suspect blew. The breath sample then bubbled up through a liquid, which would change color from yellow to blue—the bluer it became, the drunker you were. This was analyzed by photoelectric cells, which it then translated to a meter and showed how much a person had drunk. (It wasn’t foolproof; some found they could clog the machine by spitting into it. Strainers were installed.)
Technology is adept at shrinking things down if nothing else. Today’s breathalyzers are smaller and far more complicated internally—most employ a fuel cell with two electrodes bridged by electrolytes. The ethanol in the breath is broken down by one electrode into acetic acid, while the other extracts oxygen, creating a mild electric current between them. A microprocessor analyzes the current, and calculates how much alcohol is present, which is converted to a blood alcohol content percentage.
For about $25, you can now buy a BACtrack analyzer that fits on a keychain, and instantly gives you your blood alcohol level in cheerful red numbers with reasonable accuracy and reliability.
As the technology has gotten smaller and easier to use, it has enabled social control to be more easily corralled by centralized authority. In the past century, drunk driving has gone from being a matter of local discretion to something now tightly regulated from above. Thanks to science, states first took the power to determine who was drunk away from local police by establishing blood alcohol levels. Later the federal government took that control from the states by making the 0.08-percent blood alcohol level a virtual national mandate by controlling grants for highway construction and the like, most notably with 1998 legislation signed by President Bill Clinton.
As we mark eight decades of laws based on what was once called the “chemical breath smeller,” we thus mark the rise of science and federal oversight, with the incontrovertible result that society has become safer as a result.
At a time when science seems widely mistrusted and the federal government widely loathed, it also may mark the last time that a dramatic, national policy backed by facts and overseen by legislators in Washington has gone unresisted, virtually unremarked, and hailed for its impressive track record of success.
Albert Camus: It doesn’t matter; the chicken’s actions have no meaning except to him.
Police face an increasingly common challenge: how to tell if a driver is high.
As states legalize marijuana use, opioid abuse runs rampant, the methamphetamine crisis continues and new synthetic drugs hit the streets, law enforcement authorities say it’s more common than ever to encounter motorists who are under the influence.
In response, police are pioneering a new generation of chemical tests designed to detect drugs quickly in drivers’ bodies, eventually during a roadside stop. They’re like breath tests for alcohol, but they use mouth swabs to screen for at least a half dozen other drugs.
One west suburban department plans in the coming months to start testing suspect drivers for marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, methamphetamines and opiates like heroin.
Carol Stream police, who are known for their aggressive enforcement of drunken-driving laws, say they’re expanding their attention to drugs because they see the effects on drivers but aren’t always sure which drug is involved. It’s believed to be the first agency in the state to try the new driver drug tests.
“If it’s going to be like a breath test, that’s a game-changer,” Sgt. Brian Cluever said. “If we can make our roads safer, we want to do that.”
Police in California, Colorado, Kansas and Michigan, as well as Australia and many European countries, are already using or testing such devices. But critics, like some marijuana proponents and civil rights advocates, question how well the tests work and whether they’ll be used properly.
Defense attorney Don Ramsell, for one, is skeptical. He says judges have yet to certify that the tests are accurate.
“They might just as well hand somebody a bag of nachos and see if he eats it,” said Ramsell, who specializes in driving under the influence law. “That’s just as valid.”
Ultimately, the debate over whether roadside drug tests can be used to help arrest drivers will probably end up in court.
Unprecedented rise in drugged driving
Alcohol has long been the leading mind-altering hazard on the road, involved in about 10,000 driving deaths each year. A lengthy public campaign to reduce drunken driving and increase the use of seat belts and air bags has cut the number of deaths by half since the early 1980s.
A variety of devices were invented to test drivers for alcohol, including the Drunkometer, Intoximeter and Breathalyzer. Police began widespread use of portable breath-testing devices in the 1980s.
But in 2015, for the first time, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes nationwide who tested positive for drugs surpassed the number of drivers who had alcohol in their systems, according to a report by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Some states that legalized marijuana use saw marked increases. After Colorado made cannabis legal for medical and recreational use, the number of drivers in fatal crashes who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled since 2013, according to published reports.
Those numbers do not prove the drivers involved were impaired, because remnants of marijuana can remain in the body for days or weeks after use. Only some of the drivers involved in crashes were tested, and the amount of drugs present might not have been enough to play a role.
But traffic officers say they increasingly see people on the road who appear to be on something — in many cases prescription drugs, which are also illegal if they impair driving.
Looking at fatal crashes in Illinois, it appears more people are driving with drugs in their systems. While the percentage of crashes involving alcohol dropped 30 percent from 2007 through last year, the number of drivers who tested positive for marijuana tripled in that same time, to almost 15 percent, according to Illinois Department of Transportation figures.
As a result, companies like Draeger, headquartered in Germany, and Alere, owned by north suburban Abbott Laboratories, are marketing testing devices to law enforcement.
The companies claim a high degree of accuracy. A 2015 study in the Journal of Analytical Toxicology found the Draeger DrugTest 5000 accurately predicted the presence of a drug 93 percent of the time. But other studies have found varying degrees of success, depending on the device.
In Michigan last month, state police started a one-year pilot program of saliva roadside testing in five counties. State lawmakers passed a law authorizing the program, with a fine for drivers who refuse the test, Michigan State Police First Lt. Jim Flegel said.
Police will compare the test results from the Alere DDS2 device with a second swab that will be tested at an independent laboratory, and with a blood draw, which if refused can lead to a license suspension. The program is off to a promising start, and if testing proves accurate after one year, it can be continued and expanded to other counties, and hopefully ultimately introduced as evidence in court, Flegel said.
Under current Illinois law, police may seek a blood, urine or breath sample if they suspect a driver is impaired by a controlled substance, and a driver can face a one-year license suspension for refusing. But such tests are cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming, often requiring a trip to the hospital, and often take an hour or two, by which time the body may have eliminated the drug.
In contrast, the new type of test is designed to be easy, quick and portable. And rather than simply giving a positive or negative result, as many current blood tests do, the device that Carol Stream police plan to test, called P.I.A.2 , gives measurements for the amount of drugs present.
That’s important, because while Illinois used to define impairment as having any amount of cannabis or other controlled substance in the body, last year lawmakers raised that minimum threshold to 5 nanograms per milliliter in the blood, and 10 ng/mL in other bodily fluids.
But the Illinois State Police crime laboratory is not certified to give such precise measurements, and local police agencies say it can take months to process a request. Therefore, police sometimes send samples to private labs, which can be quicker but also costlier.
That’s where the new field test comes in. For drivers who submit to a blood draw, Carol Stream police plan to ask them also to volunteer for the mouth swab, not for use in court, but simply to compare its accuracy to the lab test. The department plans to conduct at least 100 comparisons over the next year, beginning around March.
Testing devices can cost $3,000 to $6,000, but the manufacturer of the unit in question, a German company called Protzek, will provide it for free to the village. Officials claim its accuracy is comparable to state-of-the-art laboratory techniques.
Len Jonker, president of Judicial Testing Systems, the distributor for Protzek here, said he is in talks about supplying the device to other law enforcement agencies in Illinois as well.
The tests have been challenged in some state courts but have been upheld as a preliminary step to establish probable cause to make an arrest, according to the National District Attorneys Association.
Still, the tests cannot yet be used as conclusive evidence in court, and still require a blood draw for confirmation, the prosecutors reported.
Dan Linn, executive director of the marijuana advocacy group Illinois NORML, said he welcomes the test for accuracy.
“We advocate for legalizing cannabis, but that does not mean we advocate people driving impaired by cannabis,” he said. “The bigger question is, who is driving impaired, and who just has cannabis in their systems.”
Illinois law has zero tolerance for driving on controlled substances other than marijuana, meaning any amount is enough to convict someone of DUI.
Yet unlike alcohol, which has been shown to cause impairment at a blood alcohol level of 0.08, no numeric levels have been established to show impairment from various drugs, because their effects vary so widely from person to person, depending in part on the user’s tolerance.
That’s why Linn believes it’s better to have trained police officers try to assess from direct observations whether a driver is impaired.
Police and prosecutors agree, and for that reason call for more training of officers as drug recognition experts, or DREs. While the standard field sobriety test — where drivers are asked to walk in a straight line and turn around, stand on one leg and close their eyes and touch their nose — was designed primarily to detect the influence of alcohol, the DRE test uses more subtle signs to try to detect drugs.
Dilated or constricted pupils, incomplete or repetitive speech, tremors in the eyelids or hands, odors, high pulse or body temperature, nervousness or lack of inhibition may all be considered signs of impairment from various drugs.
Processing a DUI arrest is time-consuming, and the new law that set the cannabis intoxication standard on driving under the influence states that police must take a blood sample within two hours. Police say that’s often impractical or impossible, especially in rural areas far from a hospital.
That’s why interest is so high in finding a quick technological fix.
‘If they can prove it … then bring it’
Police are free to try out drug-detecting devices, but to get them authorized for use as evidence, they typically have to be assessed by the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board, then be approved as administrative rules changes by the Joint Commission on Administrative Rules, state police Master Sgt. Matthew Boerwinkle said. That process could take months or years.
In addition, to be accepted in court, any new type of scientific evidence in Illinois generally must pass a Frye test, a judicial hearing to establish whether the technique is generally accepted as reliable by the scientific community in that field.
But Ramsell, the DUI attorney, cautions that many types of prior forensics evidence, from shoe prints to bite marks to signs of arson, have been undermined, and any new test deserves rigorous research by scientists, not police.
“If they want to turn citizens into rhesus monkeys, I am not volunteering,” Ramsell said. “But I’m all for science. If they can prove it in court, then bring it.”
He also accused police of wanting to raise more money in court fines. Last year, Carol Stream, which prosecutes many DUI cases itself, reported collecting $261,000 in court fines from DUI cases, plus another $300,000 in towing fees and $363,000 in circuit court fines for a variety of offenses.
While suburban police do not have to fight the amount of violent crime seen in Chicago, Cluever said his officers prioritize aggressive traffic stops to save lives and prevent other crimes, not to raise revenue. Initially, the tests will be done at the police station, but eventually, officers hope to use them on the roadside.
“If you’re driving impaired,” Cluever said, “we’re doing everything we can to keep you off the road.”
Sir Isaac Newton: Chickens at rest tend to stay at rest. Chickens in motion tend to cross the road.
WESTPORT — Police arrested an Acushnet man on charges of driving under the influence of marijuana after a motor vehicle stop Monday night in Westport.
The arresting Westport officer, Jarrod Levesque, is a certified Drug Recognition Expert trained to focus on drug-related impairments, said Westport police Detective Jeff Majewski.
“DREs are becoming more valuable in recent months since marijuana legalization has increased recreational drug use, which has carried over to an increase locally of drugged driving,” Majewski said in prepared remarks.
Majewski said Raymond Morin, 35, of 16 Helen St. in Acushnet, was charged with operating under the influence of drugs and issued a $500 dollar violation for having an open container of marijuana inside a vehicle.
Around 7:35 p.m. on Monday, Majewski said Levesque observed a vehicle traveling west on State Road with its left directional on for several hundred feet passing four possible turn offs or breaks in the median. The vehicle was traveling approximately 28 miles per hour in a posted 55-mile-per-hour zone, Majewski said.
At the intersection of Gifford Road and State Road, Majewski said the operator turned south onto Gifford Road. Just as he passed the driveway to CVS, Morin then allegedly stopped his vehicle abruptly in the travel lane blocking the road.
Levesque approached the driver, who when he lowered the window “a cloud of marijuana smoke plumed from the vehicle.” Majewski said the officer also saw marijuana crumbs and residue in the driver’s lap.
Morin allegedly had difficulty producing his Registry of Motor Vehicle documents and was instructed to exit the vehicle to perform roadside assessment tests. Morin told the officer that he had smoked a marijuana blunt. He was arrested when he failed the sobriety tests, Majewski said.
Inside Morin’s vehicle, the police located a small quantity of marijuana in a Tupperware container, Majewski said.
Majewski said Levesque completed an in-depth evaluation of Morin. Majewski said indicators of drug impairment include the presence of body tremors, eyelid tremors, poor perception of time and distance, dilated pupils, elevated blood pressure, elevated pulse and poor completion of hand eye coordination assessments.
A man in Illinois had a case of mistaken identity when police officers approached him after he crashed his car into a ditch.
Police officers arrived on scene at 12:49 a.m. Friday after being notified of a man driving erratically in the parking lot, almost hitting a pedestrian and then crashing his car. When police approached the Galesburg, IL, man, he claimed his name was “Burger King.”
According to reports, the 34-year-old Bradley S. Galloway told officers his name was “Burger King,” and he smelled like alcohol. Officers noted Galloway’s eyes were bloodshot and glassy, WGIL reported.
Galloway failed to cooperate with officers or medical personnel, and refused medical assitance. During an inspection by the EMTs, Galloway made racial slurs towards the paramedics multiple times.
The man then refused to stand up by himself and required police to carry him into the police station.
Galloway continued to make “several unusual comments, including ‘Donald Trump is coming to beat up’” the officers, The Register-Mail reported.
Eventually, he was transported to the hospital, where he implied that a doctor was coming to give him a million dollars. When he was transferred back to the county jail, Galloway told officers, “You all believe in Satan. You all worship Satan. You all driving me to Satan’s town,” WGIL reported.
The man faces charges including driving under the influence, resisting arrest, reckless driving, failing to reduce speed to avoid and accident and operating an uninsured vehicle.
Witnesses alleged earlier that they tried to take his keys away from him when Galloway left the Showgirls bar, but were unable to.