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Diane Schuler and the
Female DUI Epidemic

What the ongoing obsession with Diane Schuler's bizarre and tragic death trip reveals about the soaring spike in drunk driving by American women.

Image: 

Diane and Daniel Schuler with son Bryan and daughter Erin.
photo via

Diane Schuler may have felt isolated in the last minutes of her life as she sped the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway with four children and a half-empty vodka bottle in a minivan in July 2009, but as a woman driving drunk she was far from alone.

Arrests for drunk driving among women have increased 36% in the past 10 years, even as those for men have plummeted, according to FBI statistics quoted in a study released last month. Inspired by Schuler’s tragic 2009 accident in which four children and four adults were killed, the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) reviewed 20 years of statistics on female Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) and Driving Under the Influence (DUI) arrests from many sources.

What they found is truly alarming. In 1980, nine percent of drivers arrested for DWI—drinking with a blood alcohol content (BAC) higher than 0.08—were women; by 2007, women comprised more than 20% of all DWIs. Also steadily increasing are both the number of women jailed for drunk driving and the number of women involved in drunk driving fatalities, according to the TIRF study.

What do women arrested for DWI have in common? Most of thhem are experiencing alcohol problems of both “gravity and complexity,” the study says. (The same is true for men who arrested.) In other words, the vast majority of DWI busts are not one-offs—they are caused by a person's serious, often chronic, abuse of alcohol. In theory, one DWI could indicate one mistaken assessment that you were not too intoxicated to get behind the wheel; in practice, people who get arrested for drunk driving are generally drunks.

Many women alcoholics, like their male counterparts, are confident that their drinking is under control even once they're behind the wheel. Like Diane Schuler, who was an attentive PTA mother with a six-figure executive career (“she did everything, she was the boss,” her husband, Daniel Schuler, told New York Magazine), in most circumstances they betray few signs of their disease. In fact, they put considerable energy into maintaining this deception. How can we spot them? The female alcoholic will often drink when others are not drinking—at a ladies lunch, say, or a bridge game—or be unable to resist the urge to order a third glass of wine. Sometimes her eyes may be red or her breath may smell of alcohol or breath mints. Often her plans go awry, whether for the children’s summer camp or a job interview.

She thinks of herself as a "social drinker"—or, in more realistic moments, a "functional alcoholic"—and yet she can be seen weaving all over the road on the way home from the supermarket with the kids carefully strapped into their car seats. She is sometimes identifiable by what recovering alcoholics call the “dark promises,” symptoms of alcoholism that are detailed in Alcoholics Anonymous' Big Book: “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people.”

In theory, one DWI could indicate one mistaken assessment that you were not too intoxicated to get behind the wheel; in practice, people who get arrested for drunk driving are drunks.

Alcohol is more dangerous for women than for men. Three or four drinks can have a very different effect on a 120-pound woman than on a 180-pound man. Women develop alcoholism at an older age than men, and they also develop it faster. The average age of first DUI arrest for women is 31, while that for men ranges is 23. Women are not only older when arrested but have higher levels of education than men, although they also have lower-paying jobs (go figure). Many women arrested for drunk driving are single, divorced or separated—or are likely to be living with a partner who is also an abuser of alcohol. They are also far more likely to have a mental health diagnosis, such as depression, anxiety or PTSD. Despite all these demographic differences, however, the rate of recidivism is about the same for men and women.

It is far more shameful for women to admit to being alcoholic than it is men. A drunken man is a “hard drinker”; a drunken woman a “lush.” Indeed, for a significant number of females, being drunk often results in being physically and sexually abused. A man can admit he’s too drunk to drive without raising too many eyebrows—after all, his wife can cover for him—but when a woman makes the same admission, she invites criticism not merely of her lack of control but of her overall performance as a dutiful wife, a responsible mother. As a result, the pressure to keep a problem with alcohol hidden is more intense and insidious for women, making treatment and recovery less of an option.

Because we don’t want to sully our idea of what it means to be a good mother, wife or worker, we use circular logic to avoid the problem. Alcoholics can’t be good mothers; therefore good mothers can’t be alcoholics. It makes perfect sense until an accident like Schuler’s or a study like the TIRF study temporarily shatters our delusions.

Liz Garbus, who produced and directed a documentary about Diane Schuler, There’s Something Wrong With Aunt Diane, said, “[Making the film,] I learned about the ideals around motherhood, the way that [Diane] was put on a pedestal as the perfect mom, what the ingredients of being a perfect mom looked like. The idea is probably too much for anybody to be, yet we want people to be it."

Two and a half years later, speculation still swirls around the “real” story behind Diane Schuler’s bizarre and tragic death trip. How did the supermom turn into the mad housewife? Was she suicidal? Did she have a psychotic break? What betrayal, disappointment or rage drove her over the edge? Or worst of all, how could she murder her children?  These questions tantalize the imagination, piling mystery upon mystery, and certainly the crash on the Taconic is every alcoholic's DUI nightmare.

Toxicology reports found that at the time she caused the head-on collision that killed eight people, Diane Schuler’s BAC was 0.19, with six grams of undigested alcohol in her stomach and high levels of THC (the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in her system. According to passing drivers who saw her driving the wrong way on the Taconic, she was staring straight ahead, both hands on the steering wheel, her expression “serene and oblivious.” She did not even have the presence of mind to brake in the instant before the collision. Yet in the face of this overwhelming evidence, Daniel Schuler remains steadfast in his denial that his wife was not driving under the influence that Sunday afternoon in July 2009.

Although he admitted to police investigators that they had been drinking that weekend, in public he has always claimed not only that his wife was not an alcoholic but that she did not drink! As for the pot, he acknowledged that she smoked now and then. But now and then may have been morning and night, according to friends whose testimony contradicts Daniel Schuler.

The fact is, Diane and Daniel Schuler lived very separate lives; she worked nine to five and ran the household, while he worked nights and spent time with his wife and daughters only on the weekends. Their conflicting schedules may well have masked other, deeper conflicts. Nothing would have been simpler than for Diane Schuler to hide her substance abuse from her husband, who seems to have been temperamentally unable to perceive, let alone confront, “the boss” about any problems at home.

In the absence of revelations from her husband, all that is left are lawsuits—and conspiracy theories. Desperate to disprove charges of his wife's apparent alcoholism, Daniel Schuler is suing the state of New York for “negligence, carelessness and recklessness” in its design and maintenance of the Taconic—the highway made her do it. Meantime, the families of the three victims in the SUV are in turn suing Daniel Schuler, claiming that he is partly responsible for the fatalities because he had to have known about her addiction.

What accounts for the continuing grip of the Schuler case on the public imagination? There's something more than "there but for the grace of God go I" mixed up in our enduring fascination with Diane Schuler—something many of us would prefer not to admit. The endless Internet interpretations of the records and relics of her life and death are ultimately based on a refusal to accept what is far and away the most probable explanation of what went wrong with Schuler that day. In that sense, we are all a little like Daniel Schuler, determined to deny the mundane reality of addiction because of its extraordinarily appalling consequences.

But as the recent report from TIRF makes abundantly clear, while it may be possible to hide a drinking problem at a dinner party, a PTA meeting, at the office or from an incurious husband, wheneve a tanked woman gets behind the wheel there is no more hiding: drunk is drunk and impaired is impaired. Drunk driving is a problem that ends all too often in death, destroyed families and crushed lives, but it begins in our own failure—or refusal—to see what’s happening around us. 

Susan Cheever, a regular columnist for The Fix, is the author of many books, including the memoirs Home Before Dark and Note Found in a Bottle, and the biography My Name Is Bill: Bill Wilson—His Life and the Creation of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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