January 19, 2019


How Americans Learned to Condemn Drunk Driving (BARRON H. LERNER, JANUARY 17, 2019, What it Means to be an American)

It is no exaggeration to say that drunk driving was largely ignored in the United States until the late 1970s. Even when drunk drivers caused serious injury or death, they often pleaded guilty to misdemeanors or traffic violations. For young men aged 21 to 44, who constituted the bulk of the offenders, drunk driving was almost a rite of passage. More jarringly, from our modern vantage point, police and prosecutors characterized victims such as Lightner's daughter Cary, who had been walking down the side of a highway when she was killed, as being "in the wrong place at the wrong time." Deaths caused by drunk drivers were "accidents."

In a country that celebrated both drinking and driving, it has long been hard to convince people that it was unacceptable to do both.

After its brief flirtation with Prohibition in the 1920s, the United States readily welcomed back alcohol into its social fabric. Manufacturers used advertising in newspapers and magazines, and later on radio and television, to connect drinking with the good life. It was a healthy habit, too. A 1937 pamphlet entitled Beer in the American Home actually characterized the beverage as "liquid food." And the more you drank, the better. Schaefer reminded its customers that it was the "one beer to have when you're having more than one."

Prior to World War II, most public drinking occurred in bars and taverns located within cities. Patrons could avail themselves of public transportation to get home. But rapid suburban growth in the 1950s meant that drinking became associated with driving, either after work or after dinner at a local restaurant.

In the late 1950s, a Harvard-trained physician and epidemiologist named William Haddon, Jr. began to formally study the incidence and characteristics of drunk driving in the United States. His work culminated in a document, the 1968 Alcohol and Highway Safety Report, that estimated that alcohol was involved in 800,000 crashes annually, leading to 25,000 deaths. Drunk driving, he and his coauthor A. Benjamin Kelley concluded, was a major public health problem that was being ignored.

But it was not until victims of drunk driving went public with their stories that the people paid attention.

This happened because two modes of advocacy converged in the early 1980s. On the one hand, anti-drunk driving efforts built upon recent progressive activism such as the Civil Rights movement, anti-Vietnam War protests, and second-wave feminism (hence Mothers Against Drunk Driving). On the other hand, fighting drunk driving meshed with more conservative, Reagan-era efforts to create "wars" against drugs and crime and to recognize the rights of crime victims.

Posted by at January 19, 2019 8:20 AM