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Barron H. Lerner

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Car Meets House: Another Drunk Driving Crash

Posted: 05/29/2012 1:07 pm

At 4 a.m. on Monday, May 27, a drunk 21-year-old woman drove her car through a house on New York's Long Island. Yes, actually through the house. Amazingly, there were only minor injuries.

There is no chance that Sophia Anderson did not get lectured in her high school health class on the dangers of drunk driving. She has surely heard thousands of advertisements urging people who buy alcohol to drink responsibly. Indeed, Anderson is a waitress and should thus know as well as anyone why inebriated people should get nowhere near a driver's seat.

Yet Anderson apparently did so. She refused a Breathalyzer test that would have revealed her blood alcohol level. But police in Huntington, N.Y., nevertheless arrested her for driving while intoxicated.

Drunk driving has been around ever since there were cars. But it was not until 1980 that Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Remove Intoxicated Drivers and other groups made drunk driving a public health emergency. Twenty-five thousand Americans died annually at the hands of drunk drivers. But very few of the perpetrators spent substantial time in prison. Many pleaded down to lesser traffic offenses and merely paid fines. It was outrageous.

But the women (and men) of MADD and RID became fierce grass roots organizers. They pestered legislators, held rallies, issued press releases and, most importantly, spoke the language of victims' rights. Many of these activists had lost children when drunk drivers, who often had several prior DWI arrests, drank and drove without any consideration of the damage they could do.

The movement scored great successes in the 1980s. States gradually lowered the extremely lenient legal blood alcohol limit in the United States, 0.15 percent, to its current level of 0.08 percent. Lawmakers closed loopholes that allowed drunk drivers to go free with little more than slaps on their wrists. Surveys found MADD to be America's most popular charity. And, most notably, the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, which has prevented 500 to 1,000 drunk driving deaths every year. Today, there are roughly 11,000 drunk driving deaths annually, down from 25,000.

So is the cup half empty or half full? As the author of a book on the history of drunk driving, and someone who has met hundreds of drunk driving victims, the answer is easy: half empty. Yes, there have been impressive changes. Drunk driving, which was once seen as almost a rite of passage for young men aged 20-35, has become stigmatized.

But, as the case of Sophia Anderson makes crystal clear, there is only so much that education and moral suasion can achieve. People who absolutely know that they should not drink and drive still do so, probably in part because alcohol has impaired their judgment. Catch phrases like "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" don't work so well when people are partying. A male friend of Anderson's was in the passenger seat. It is not known if he was also inebriated but someone should have taken away Anderson's car keys.

So when rational arguments don't work, what else can one do to prevent drunk driving crashes and needless loss of life? Fortunately, technology can help. Ignition interlocks, which force drivers to blow alcohol-free breath into a Breathalyzer in order to start their cars, lower recidivism rates by two-thirds. The best news is that 14 states, including New York, now mandate installation of ignition interlocks after a person's first drunk driving conviction. That means that an interlock should be one of Anderson's penalties.

In addition, Breathalyzers need not only be limited to police cars. They are readily available on amazon.com and on keychains in stores like Walmart. When used properly, Breathalyzers give very accurate results. Drinkers leaving restaurants and bars can easily slip into the bathroom and check if it is safe for them to drive.

An even better idea is to install Breathalyzers near the exits of drinking establishments. This is routinely done in countries like Australia, a country known for its heavy drinking. The message is clear: drinking is acceptable but drunk driving is not.

We should also avail ourselves of a very simple technology: designated drivers. In Scandinavian countries, it is routine for bartenders and hosts of parties to inquire as to which guests will be driving home. Such individuals are then served drinks without alcohol.

Another innovative approach is to arrange for taxis or car services to bring drinkers home safely after nights of heavy imbibing. Successful examples of such programs are the Washington Regional Alcohol Program and the Road Crew project in rural Wisconsin. In some instances, alcohol manufacturers and local bars and restaurants fund such efforts.

No one was seriously injured or killed when Sophia Anderson did something incredibly stupid and entirely preventable. Let's take her story as a wake-up call. Drunk driving is still a public health emergency that kills thousands of innocent Americans annually.

 
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