Author and professor Dr. Barron Lerner: ‘We simply like to drink and drive too much’
Friends don’t let friends drive drunk, right? Wrong. An estimated 4 million American adults say they drove drunk at least once in 2010. That year, nearly 11,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes across the country.
Drunken driving certainly isn’t a new phenomenon in America, though. It’s a problem almost as old as the automobile itself.
Dr. Barron Lerner, professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, has written a book that chronicles the history of drunken driving in the United States. “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900″ explains why, after decades of warnings, people continue to drink and drive. In an interview with InsuranceQuotes.com, Lerner expresses some no-holds-barred opinions about MADD, blood-alcohol levels, the restaurant business and the alcohol industry.
InsuranceQuotes.com: Why did you decide to write a book about the history of drunken driving in America? As a physician, what drew you to this subject matter?
|Dr. Barron Lerner, a professor at Columbia University, says he doesn’t foresee the legal limit for driving drunk being raised above 0.08 percent because of pressure from restaurant and alcohol lobbyists.|
Dr. Barron Lerner: I work in a school of public health and often deal with the issue of how to balance protection of the public with the need to honor civil liberties. Drunk driving seemed to be an instance where we have leaned too far in the direction of the latter.
Once I began my research, I realized how true this was. For decades, the U.S. went out of its way to protect the rights of people who drank and drove because certain individuals had a high tolerance for alcohol. That reasoning seems 180 degrees wrong to me. Why not err on the side of protecting the rights of potential victims?
As a physician, I need to know everything about my patients’ health-related habits. It is part of my duty to ask about drinking behaviors and even driving behaviors, although it is hard these days given time constraints. If my patients are driving drunk, I want them to tell me and let me try to help them stop.
InsuranceQuotes.com: How did the first drunken driving laws set the stage for America’s approach to drunken driving?
Lerner: The earliest laws were passed in the 1910s soon after cars became a fixture on American roads. There was wide public support for these laws because no one (tolerated) drunk driving. The problem was in enforcement. Police often did not take drunk driving seriously. Jurors and judges, some of whom drank and drove themselves, were loathe to convict people of DWI. As a result, most drunk drivers received slaps on the wrist.
As far as public campaigns went, some of the “Drys” from the Prohibitionist movement, often affiliated with the Baptist church, harped on the issue of drunk driving during the mid-20th century. But it was not until the 1980s, thanks to RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), that the public really engaged with the issue.
InsuranceQuotes.com: In your book, you write about how lenient the country was in the past when it came to drunk driving. What precipitated the change in mind-set, and how far has this country come?
Lerner: The first wave of change came from government officials in the 1950s and 1960s, who calculated that roughly 25,000 people died annually from drunk driving crashes. This was an enormous public health problem that was largely neglected. Then came the activist mothers who were furious that children and adults were being killed by recidivist drunk drivers who were never adequately punished. This victims’ rights mind-set struck a huge chord with the public in ways that government bureaucrats could not.
This country has come a long way. The death rate from drunk driving has declined by at least 50 percent. But there is room for more improvement. According to the CDC, there are still over 110 million instances of drunk driving annually. That means that too many people are still knowingly engaging in a reckless and potentially harmful activity. We need to take the concept of the designated driver more seriously and, as seems necessary, use technologies that prevent binge drinkers from starting their cars if they choose to try to drive home.
InsuranceQuotes.com: In the book “Superfreakanomics,” economist Steven Levitt points to research that suggests there’s one arrest per 27,000 miles driven drunk in this country. Despite the many reasons not to drive drunk, people still do it with alarming frequency. Why is this? What did you find in terms of psychology that supports a willingness to drive drunk?
Lerner: One factor that builds on Levitt’s comment is that most people get away with doing it. Studies show that when municipalities initiate crackdowns and people fear getting caught, rates go way down. The problem is that such programs are labor-intensive and expensive and are thus temporary.
In addition, in this country, especially for many men age 21 to 35, drunk driving remains a rite of passage, a sort of test of one’s masculinity. Part of the blame for this situation rests with the alcohol and hospitality industries, which do promote “responsible drinking” but use advertising that equates heavy drinking with partying, sex and the “good life.” Other countries that have much higher alcohol use than the U.S. have much lower rates of drunk driving. It is simply a much more stigmatized activity.
|Dr. Barron Lerner’s “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900″ examines how the United States has grappled with drunken motorists.|
InsuranceQuotes.com: What surprised you in your research for this book?
Lerner: For decades, the legal limit for drunk driving in most states was 0.15 percent, almost twice the current 0.08 percent level. This level is equivalent to six to eight drinks on an empty stomach. Why a society would tolerate something like this, which contributed to ten of thousands of deaths a year, baffles me.
I also spoke with many families who had lost loved ones during this era. Almost all of them told me the same story: The drunk driver had short prison sentences at most, and those who were injured or killed were characterized as having been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Talk about blaming the victim!
InsuranceQuotes.com: Why don’t you think the legal blood-alcohol level will be dropped?
Lerner: It is simply not politically viable in this country. There is already a significant backlash to the 0.08 percent level, and the alcohol and beverage industry lobbies are among the strongest in Washington. Frankly, it makes more sense to use strategies like ignition interlocks and roadblocks, in which police stop cars and check blood-alcohol levels.
InsuranceQuotes.com: There’s another side of the drunk driving debate discussed in your book, which suggests the problem is exaggerated and over-regulated. Does this argument have credence?
Lerner: I do not agree with this argument but tried hard to give it a fair shake in the book. Yes, it is possible to get pulled over by a police officer and, despite having an insignificant blood-alcohol level, be arrested for DWI. There are stories of people truly victimized by the system. But that is a reason to fix the system, not throw up our hands and condone drinking and driving.
The smart thing to do is to avoid getting in that situation in the first place. If you have a gun at home, don’t accidentally bring it to work. If you have been drinking, find some other way to get home instead of driving. It is just common sense.
InsuranceQuotes.com: What’s your expectation for the future of drunken driving in America?
Lerner: I think that rates and deaths will continue their gradual decline, mostly because cars and roads are safer and that all new drivers are inundated with anti-drunk-driving messages in school.
But the real interesting issue will be whether we have the inclination to actually try to stop drunk driving with the technologies I mentioned. I would consider cars that don’t start if I have been drinking to be a favor to me. But there is a sizable number of people who would view such technologies as (abolishing) their civil rights. The beverage and restaurant industries are likely to agree, so don’t expect a lot of restrictive legislation. We simply like to drink and drive too much.