The combination of driving an automobile after drinking significant amounts of alcohol has been recognized as a serious problem since the motor car was invented in the 1880s. By 1910, the law in the United States had already codified drunk driving as a misdemeanor offence. Prohibitionists used the danger created by mixing alcohol and driving as a key point in their argument in favor of the 18th Amendment, as a result of which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol in the United States was banned between 1920 and 1933.
Drunk driving has been shown to be one of the most costly social consequence of alcohol abuse. The toll drunk driving has taken on human life and health can, on its own, make alcohol abuse one of the most serious social problems in the United States. The extent and consequences of drunk driving underline the challenges of harmonizing a drinking culture with a modern industrial society.
During the 1950s and the 1960s, as the U.S. economy prospered and while the development of the highway network was underway, alcohol abuse as well as traffic safety became a serious issue in America. The Highway Safety Act of 1966 played a crucial role in mobilizing attention and resources against drunk driving. In effect, the Act established a federal jurisdiction by creating the National Highway Safety Bureau, which preceded the National Highway Safety Administration (N.H.T.S.A.). It also authorized the U.S. Department of Education's 1968 report, Alcohol and Highway Safety, which found that 25,000 deaths and at least 800,000 crashes in the United States each year were caused by the use of alcohol by drivers and pedestrians.
N.H.T.S.A. became the main sponsor of research and action projects designed to reduce drunk driving. In 1970, it launched the Alcohol Safety Action Project (A.S.A.P.), which was the first significant initiative against drunk driving in the United States. The A.S.A.P. aimed at significantly reducing drunk driving through intensive countermeasures, such as law enforcement, rehabilitation and education. However, in spite of an increase in arrests and tens of thousands of referrals to drunk-driver schools and rehabilitation programs, it could not be confirmed that the programs had achieved a significant decrease in drunk driving, which resulted in the termination of the A.S.A.P. in 1977.
A grass-roots anti-drunk driving movement comprised of victims, their families and other concerned citizens emerged in the late 1970s. Mothers Against Drunk Drinking, Students Against Driving Drunk, and Remove Intoxicated Drivers opened local chapters throughout the United States and there were vigorous campaigns for new and tougher drunk-driving countermeasures.
In 1982, a Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving was appointed by Ronald Reagan. State highway funds were linked to the states' passage of specified measures against drunk driving, including a minimum drinking age of 21. Eventually, the drinking age in each state was raised accordingly. The states passed legislation which provided for more and better law enforcement and a wider range of severe criminal penalties, such as mandatory jail terms, automatic license forfeiture, public education, drunk-driver schools and rehabilitation.
By 2010, more than 2 million people a year were being arrested for drunk driving in the United States, although it is believed that the number of arrests represents only a small proportion of all violators. The risk posed by drunk drivers to themselves and others around them varies. The most dangerous of the drunk drivers are those that drive far in excess of the speed limit, cross into lanes of traffic going in the opposite direction, and weave in and out of traffic. By contrast, there are drivers making an impaired effort to drive safely and, although they operate with diminished skill and judgment, they pose less of a risk.
Most drunk-driving episodes do not lead to a crash or injuries, but drunk drivers have caused serious personal injury and property damage. By 2010, estimates of the number of traffic fatalities that can be attributed to drunk driving vary, with some claiming they account for approximately 30 percent of the approximately 45,000 annual traffic fatalities in the United States, while other estimates point to 50 percent. Drunk drivers themselves comprise a large proportion of those who are killed, often in single-car collisions.