December 29

This Day in History

Automotive

Dec 29, 1989:

Actor Christian Slater arrested for drunk driving

On this day in 1989, 20-year-old actor Christian Slater is arrested for drunk driving in Los Angeles, California. He had a blood-alcohol level of .24, or .24 grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood--three times the legal limit in California. Slater's arrest came after a predawn car chase--he was driving 50 MPH in a 35-MPH zone--that ended when he crashed his Saab into a tree. He spent 10 days in jail.

People have been driving drunk for almost as long as they have been driving cars: The first drunk-driving arrest took place in London in September 1897. In 1931, a toxicologist at Indiana University named Rolla Harger came up with a way to prove that someone was too intoxicated to drive, even if he or she wouldn't admit it--a device he called the Drunkometer. It was simple: all the suspected drinker had to do was blow into a balloon. The tester then attached the balloon to a tube filled with a purple fluid (potassium permanganate and sulfuric acid) and released its air into the tube. Alcohol on a person's breath changed the color of the fluid from purple to yellow; the quicker the change, the drunker the person.

The Drunkometer was effective but cumbersome, and it required a certain amount of scientific calculation to determine just how much alcohol a person had consumed. In 1954, another Indianan named Robert Borkenstein invented a device that was more portable and easier to use. Borkenstein's machine, the Breathalyzer, worked much like Harger's did--it measured the amount of alcohol in a person's breath--but it did the necessary calculations automatically and thus could not be foiled or tampered with. (One tipsy Canadian famously ate his underwear while waiting to take a Breathalyzer test because he believed that the cotton would somehow absorb the alcohol in his system. It did not.) The Breathalyzer soon became standard equipment in every police car in the nation.

Slater is certainly not the only celebrity to be caught drunk driving. In 2006, actor Mel Gibson's blood-alcohol level was .12 when the police pulled him over for speeding in Malibu, California. In that year alone, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie were cited for driving under the influence, as were actors Rip Torn, Haley Joel Osment, and Tracy Morgan and boxer Mike Tyson. Other celebrity DUI arrestees include swimmer Michael Phelps, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and basketball player Carmelo Anthony.

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