A Brief History of Drunk Driving

By Adam K. Raymond 11/23/11

This isn't just a season for eating. One expert tells us how America's drinking and driving habits have changed—and why DUI laws should be tougher.

Drunk driving can have a crushing effect

Quick quiz: Which American holiday results in more drunk driving arrests than any other? It’s not New Years. Nor is it St. Patrick’s Day. Here's a hint: it's often interrupted by a turkey-induced coma. That's right, more Americans are charged with DUI over Thanksgiving weekend than any other time of the year. So on the eve of America’s most gluttonous and besotted holiday, The Fix paid a visit to Columbia University professor Barron Lerner, author of One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900.

America has come a long way since 1982, when there were 26,173 alcohol-related auto fatalities (in 2009, there were 12,744). But while many Americans think they're now stuck with draconian drunk driving laws, Lerner contends the laws aren't nearly tough enough. In fact, the United States' 0.08 blood alcohol content limit is among the highest in the western world (the legal limit in Sweden and Norway, by comparison, is 0.02). So what do we do? Start by taking a page from the Scandinavians, he says, and lower our BAC to 0.05. That alone would save hundreds of lives. But certain forces, including the alcohol lobby and our stubborn national psyche, will never let that happen.

What's the first high-profile example of a fatal case of drunk driving?
That would have to be the death of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With the Wind. She was killed crossing a street in Atlanta by a driver who was never breath tested, and while it wasn't proven that he was drunk, he was speeding and had admitted to having a drink. That was in 1949, and it was the first time that a death from drunk driving really landed on the front pages and was actually attributed to drinking. There was a moment of outrage, but then, you know, it died off relatively quickly. Of course, when Mothers Against Drunk Driving was founded in 1980, its membership made sure its stories made it to the front pages of newspapers and stayed there.
MADD is what forced the general public to consider drunk driving was a dangerous activity.
For decades, drunk driving was viewed as accidental, or as some sort of rite of passage—it was just something that everyone did. No one really came out and said it was good, but there was a lot of looking in the other direction when it happened. Then in 1980, a mother from California lost her daughter in an accident caused by a drunk driver. In her grief, she founded MADD with the goal of making the laws stricter and stigmatizing the act of drunk driving. MADD's aggressive campaigning worked, and eventually the public started vilifying people who drove drunk. So for a while there was a lot of public outrage against drunk drivers. Now it's demonized much more than it used to be—though there are still a lot of winks and nods. People still think they have a right to drive drunk.

Three-quarters of the drunk drivers out there are men between the ages of 21 and 35. Of those, an extremely high percentage is binge drinkers who tend to have a higher blood alcohol content. And they're also responsible for most of the fatalities.

There are fewer alcohol-related fatalities now, but is that attributed directly to MADD's efforts?
It's very hard to quantify. In other countries, where there aren’t similar groups, the death rates have also gone down. By MADD putting the issue out there though, I think many people who used to drink and drive are less likely to do so. Certainly, they effected changes in laws. I think there were 700 new drunk driving laws nationwide between 1980 and 1985, and MADD was very influential in getting them passed. That's very concrete stuff.

MADD’s critics call it a group of neo-prohibitionists more focused on the presence of alcohol in the body than actual danger posed by it.
That perception formed I think because the laws have gotten progressively stricter, and they're very vocal. Now you could go out on a Saturday night and there are police checkpoints and there are ignition interlocks and license revocations and stories about people who have really screwed their lives up with what they think are very low blood alcohol levels. But the organization itself has been pretty careful to say it's not against drinking, rather it's against binge drinking and drunk driving. Strictly speaking, that doesn't preclude people from having a drink socially and driving later.

I don't doubt there are some instances where the laws unfairly punish people, but that's a reason to try to make the system work better, not get rid of it. You can tell these stories enough and throw your hands up and say, "Look at what MADD has done! They've made it so a guy can't have a drink with some nachos after work and drive home! It's an outrage!" But that's an overstatement. It goes back to a sense of individualism that's so strong in this country. MADD becomes a natural target as the group that's impinging those liberties.

Is there a common profile for the American drunk driver?
Three-quarters are men between the ages of 21 and 35. Of those, an extremely high percentage is binge drinkers who tend to have a higher blood alcohol content. And they're also responsible for most of the fatalities. The other quarter is women, older people, non-binge drinker. These are the people who don't really binge drink but make a mistake on a given night.

Do you think a lower legal blood alcohol level would help the drunk driving problem?
Well, yes, but there's no perfect number because of the variability of impairment. My feeling though is that .05 would be pretty reasonable. Most people are impaired at .05. Most countries have picked .05. [China, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands have .02.] Part of the problem is that when you say the blood alcohol level is .08, it's confusing. If most people are buzzed with two drinks, that's roughly .05. So just make the level there. Why we're cutting a break to people between .05 and .08, I just don't get. I don't see why even if a small number of people can hold their liquor at .08 we'd based public health laws on them.

There must be some explanation for that.
Sure. One reason is we're a society that errs on the side of lenience. Two others are the alcohol lobby and restaurant industry, which have on one hand been very vocal in their opposition to drunk driving, and on the other been very limited in the strategies they're willing to endorse. For instance, they’ll endorse license revocation or .08, but they won’t do .05, they won't do ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders. They're walking a very precarious line between ensuring sales of their product and discouraging drunk drivers.

The other reason is this American spirit of individualism and liberty. And look, I like my liberty as much as everyone else, but I'm willing to sacrifice a couple drinks at a party if everyone else is too because I don't want to get killed by someone who thinks they can drive when they most certainly cant. However, when you come out and say that, there’s a fierce backlash from those who think their right are being trampled. Fighting for privilege to drive impaired is not my idea of standing up for my civil liberties.

How much would reducing the legal blood alcohol level help?
It would save about 500 lives a year. That's based on what's happened in other countries. Of course that's an estimate and it's hard to prove. Some people will argue that's an exaggeration, since many drunk driving deaths occur for people who are over .08. But there are enough fatalities that occur between .08 and .05 to make changing the law worthwhile.

So that lops off 500 deaths a year. Are there any other steps that would reduce the number further?
We could bring the number of death to near zero. There are devices that measure the alcohol in your blood when you place your hands on the steering wheel. If the BAC is high enough, it prevents the car from starting. It functions in a similar way to the interlocks you have to breath into before your car will start. I can't see how anyone would object to the notion of making a convicted drunk driver use an ignition interlock. All this thing is doing is making sure you don't do it again. It’s not putting you in jail. If you're not willing to put an ignition interlock in your car, you're basically saying you're going to drink and drive again and you don't want to get caught.

Americans seem to take designated drivers seriously. Do the stats support that?
Actually, not really. Other countries people are much better about designated driving.

Why hasn’t it caught on as much in the U.S.?
I think it's cultural. I think that people who go to parties and drink feel it's their right to drive home. I think there's a cultural notion here that if you're the designated driver you can't have any fun. I suppose if you're not an alcoholic, there are ways to drink safely. If I go to a party and I'm going to be there three hours, I drink early. If you go to a party and you have three glasses of wine over three hours and you eat dinner, the average person's blood alcohol level when they leave is going to be .04. I still think if you're the designated driver you shouldn't drink. And if the options are drinking on an empty stomach or a full stomach, then you should do it on a full stomach. But really, if you're the designated driver you should just suck it up and not drink.

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Adam K. Raymond covers politics and sports for New York Magazine. Visit Adam's website and follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.