Op-Ed: Drunk Driving, the Unfortunate Holiday Tradition

Author: Barron H. Lerner
Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication Date: Sept. 2011

During the holidays, a time when we celebrate our bonds with family and friends, why do we let so many of them drive while intoxicated?

Drunk-Driving: The Unfortunate Holiday Tradition

There are three things one can expect every Thanksgiving: turkey, football and drunk driving.  Of the 411 deaths that occurred due to automobile crashes over the 2009 Thanksgiving weekend, one-third were alcohol-related. Christmas and New Year’s Eve are just as bad, if not worse.

NY’s Role in the History of Drunk Driving

Although drunk driving became a concern as soon as there were automobiles, it was not until the late 1950s that attention finally began to be paid to the problem. Many of the earliest activists came from the Tri-State area.

Among the first proponents of drunk driving control were William Haddon, Jr. of the New York State Department of Health and then-future U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was working for New York Gov. W. Averell Harriman. Haddon conducted research in Westchester County, New York City and elsewhere that revealed that as many as one-half of America’s 25,000 annual automobile-related deaths were alcohol-related, much higher than previously believed. Moynihan helped by writing articles on what he termed a “disastrous epidemic” on America’s highways.

Will oncoming drivers have had too much to drink? Will their relatives have looked the other way when their guests got into their cars impaired?

Connecticut Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff held hearings on drunk driving in 1965, helping to spur the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In 1978, Doris Aiken, a journalist in Schenectady, N. Y., energized members of the public when she founded Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), after reading of the deaths of two local teenagers in a drunk driving crash. Two years later, Candy Lightner, a realtor from California, started Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) after her 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk driver who had several previous DWI arrests. In 1984, the joint efforts of government officials, RID and MADD led to Congress passing a bill, sponsored by New Jersey legislators Frank Lautenberg and James J. Howard, that raised the drinking age from 18 to 21. This law continues to save 500-1,000 lives annually, according to the NHTSA.

A Turning Point for Drunk Driving

The results of this new activism around drunk driving were dramatic. By 1990, the yearly death rate from drunk driving had fallen by 40 percent, from 25,000 to 17,000. States passed much stricter laws, including lowering the legal blood alcohol level from 0.15 percent to 0.08 percent. The idea of the designated driver (someone who’d commit to being sober and ensuring everyone else’s safety) was a concept imported from Scandinavia with great success and much fanfare. Phrases such as “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” became part of high school health classes and the national vocabulary. Whereas few people believed that drunk driving would ever disappear in full, there was considerable optimism that it could become rare, as it has in Scandinavia, Australia, Germany and other countries.

Unfortunately, drunk driving has not disappeared. Although the annual death rate from drunk driving has declined somewhat more, to roughly 11,000, a recent Center for Disease Control report estimated that over 112 million instances in which drivers have had “too much to drink” take place each year. Local tragic stories still abound, such as that of Diane Schuler, a 36-year-old mother who was so drunk and stoned that her 2009 “wrong way” crash on New York’s Taconic Parkway killed four children and three adults. Another, Vionique Valnord, was hailing a cab in Brooklyn later that year when a drunk off-duty police officer hit and killed her with his car.

Works Project Administration print by Robert Lachenmann warning of the dangers of drinking and driving. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Why Does Drunk Driving Remain So Prevalent?

As a historian of public health, I am well aware of America’s great traditions of individualism and libertarianism. But the more I research drunk driving, the more stunned I am by the number of commentators who have believed and who continue to believe that these concepts should extend to drinking drivers.

An English professor wrote in the New York Times in 1984 that MADD and RID favor “draconian measures which severely encroach upon the rights and liberties of the vast majority of New Yorkers.” More recently, a group of young men, the demographic mostly likely to drive drunk, founded “Drunks Against MADD Mothers” and a writer for Modern Drunkard magazine (motto:  “Standing up for your right to get falling down drunk since 1996″)  termed MADD activists a “fraudulent gang of liberty-squashing fascists.”

Such sentiments are extreme, but there remains widespread opposition to drunk-driving laws.

Proven Strategies Against Drunk Driving Are Underused

Yet proven strategies for lowering rates of drunk driving are underused. One such intervention, sobriety checkpoints, at which police stop and test drivers for intoxication, are still not used at all in 12 states. Fourteen states do not mandate the use of ignition interlocks, which require drivers with a DWI conviction blow into a breathalyzer before driving.

The alcohol and beverage industries also have opposed many anti-drunk driving measures. These groups have enthusiastically promoted the phrase “responsible drinking” in public campaigns while opposing legislation aimed at deterring drinking and driving. Plus, beer companies, in particular, continue to advertise heavily and promote events on college campuses.

All of which leaves me nervous about driving home from Thanksgiving dinner, holiday parties and New Year’s Eve. Will oncoming drivers have had too much to drink? Will their relatives have looked the other way when their guests got into their cars impaired?

Even if intoxicated drivers make it home safely, it remains a “national tragedy” that such individuals continue to put others’ lives at risk. Unfortunately, the only way to be entirely safe during the holidays is to stay off the roads.

Barron H. Lerner, MD, Professor of Medicine and Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center, is the author of  “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900.”

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