As the New Year quickly approaches, the joys of family, festivity, and gift-giving (and receiving!) remind us of why this time of year might just be the most pleasant time of the year. Sadly, December is also the most dangerous time of the year to be on the road, and not just because of icy roads and poor visibility: during the period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, deaths caused by drunk driving rise 34% compared to the rest of the year. That number would be much lower if the invention we discuss this week, the breathalyzer, was used more frequently.
Drunk driving has been a problem since the invention of the vehicle. As catastrophic as drunk driving is today, it used to be much, much worse: 30% of all traffic fatalities today are caused by drunk drivers, but in the 50s and 60s, that number was closer to 50%.
While the concept of blood-alcohol level became a serious public safety concern with the advent of the automobile, the first serious work into scientifically determining if someone had been drinking started all the way back in 1874, when it was determined that breath, which is much easier to test than blood, could accurately demonstrate how intoxicated someone was.
The quest to calculate blood alcohol level really kicked into gear when cars became the primary means of travel. New York became the first state to create drunk driving laws in 1910, and other states followed suit in fairly short order. In 1927, about midway through Prohibition, Emil Bogen used an empty football to draw correlations between the alcohol content of breath and a person’s blood alcohol level. This was an important step in the invention of the aptly-named drunk-o-meter, a stable breath-testing implement invented by Rolla Harger. In 1954, Robert Borkenstein improved on Harger’s invention, calling his creation the breathalyzer, and the rest is history.
The fight against drunk driving is far from over, and requires a great deal of education and enforcement in the years to come, but the breathalyzer has played a significant role in making America’s roads safer. It’s incredible to think that a device that started as a deflated football saves hundreds of lives a year – here’s hoping the next iterations of the breathalyzer have similarly dramatic impacts.