Who Was the First Person Arrested for Drunk Driving?

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 14, 2015

I wonder if he was aware of what a celebrity he was. History records that on September 10, 1897, George Smith, a London cabdriver, was arrested for drunk driving—the first such collar in the world!

George Smith was driving an 1897 electric taxi like this when he was arrested. (The Science Museum)They didn’t have fancy Breathalyzers in those days. Smith acted drunk (the same way people “look guilty”) and he had, of course, slammed his cab into a wall on New Bond Street, breaking a water pipe and the beading on a window. Plus, after a spirited defense about driving too fast, he admitted his crime and was fined 25 shillings ($10 million in today’s money).

Amazingly enough, the vehicle Smith destroyed was an electric car. Such taxis were popular in the U.S. at that time, too, and fleets of them plied the streets of New York before the 20th century started. The London fleet, eventually numbering 75, constituted the first self-propelled cars for hire in Britain (see the video below). The original news item, from the Morning Post, is instructive. It even has dialogue:

Prisoner: How fast was I going?

Constable: I should think about eight miles an hour.

Prisoner: At the time I was going up an incline and could not have been going [even] six miles an hour. The fastest the car will travel is eight miles an hour. [Ed: They were actually capable of between 9 and 12 mph.]

Constable: You are not charged with driving furiously, but with being drunk. What about that?

Prisoner: I have nothing to say to that. I admit having two or three glasses of beer. I am very sorry. It is the first time I have been charged with being drunk in charge of a car.

The prosecutor, a Mr. De Rutzen, said in setting the stiff fine, “You motor car drivers ought to be very careful.” He pointed out that the coppers knew how to stop a runaway horse, but an out-of-control motor car was quite a different proposition.

The poster dates to 1937, around the time the Drunkometer was invented. This got me wondering if there were similarly harsh fines for operating a horse drunk. You can, because cops take umbrage, but the cases tend to get thrown out, says Michigan columnist Troy Reimink. In 2011, two guys were arrested for taking a horse and mule through the streets of Austin “after a few too many vodka cranberries,” but the case was dismissed. In 2007, an intoxicated Alabama woman managed to ram a police car with her horse, which is one way to get the fuzz’ dander up. The key issue, says law professor Stephen Bainbridge, is whether state laws treat horses as “vehicles.” Looks like you might be OK with a horse as your designated driver, in some places.

By the way, in the more lawless U.S., there was no law criminalizing drunken driving until 1906, when New Jersey passed a statute proclaiming that "no intoxicated person shall drive a motor vehicle.” Violators got a $500 fine and/or 60 days in the county slammer. New York didn’t have a law until 1910 (but some accounts give New York credit for the first regulations). The “Drunkometer” for measuring the state of intoxication was patented in 1936, a few years after Prohibition ended.

History is silent on the first drunk-driving arrest in the U.S., but these days 1.5 to two million such arrests are made annually.

Student driver fails sobriety test in central Michigan. (Jeffrey Smith/Flickr)Driving drunk, of course, is no laughing matter. Liquor was a factor in 31 percent of all U.S. traffic fatalities in 2013. That’s more than 10,000 people. And for you history buffs, here's a closer look at those London battery taxis:


Get the Car Talk Newsletter