Stopping Drunk Drivers

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jay Winsten Associate Dean, Harvard School of Public Health

Police say that Anthony Galluccio, a Massachusetts state senator and former mayor of Cambridge, MA, was "pretty drunk" in the early hours of October 4. Galluccio walked into Basha Café in Cambridge sometime after 2:00 am. The night manager gave him something to eat, and offered to drive him home. Galluccio accepted the ride, but was too drunk to provide accurate directions. In frustration, the night manager eventually pulled into a gas station, called 911 at 4:39 am, and told the dispatcher, according to the official police report, "that he did not let Mr. Galluccio drive his car, that he did not know where Mr. Galluccio lived,...that Mr. Galluccio was totally drunk." A police cruiser responded, and the two officers offered a ride home to their former mayor. Eventually they found his residence.

Several hours later, Galluccio was back behind the wheel, and rear-ended another car at an intersection. The other driver suffered back and neck injuries, and Galluccio fled the scene. This past Friday, Galluccio pleaded guilty in Cambridge District Court to leaving the scene of a crash involving injury. The district attorney asked for six months in prison, but Galluccio received six months of home confinement, and can leave home to go to church or attend formal sessions of the Senate. He was ordered to surrender his driver's license for five years, and to submit to random alcohol testing. Galluccio apologized to the court, and issued a public statement vowing to seek treatment and remain alcohol-free.

So far, this is a "good news" story. No one was killed when Galluccio slammed into the car. And, the manager at the café deserves a medal for intervening to prevent Galluccio from driving that night. But Galluccio has two prior convictions for drunk driving (he received a pardon from former Governor William Weld for one of them), and he previously left the scene of another crash. So, this saga may not be over yet.

Galluccio's story is worth re-telling because it illuminates the long road that still lies ahead to keep our roads--and ourselves--safe from drunk drivers. Tremendous progress has been made in the U.S. in reducing alcohol-related fatalities through a combination of tough laws, strict enforcement, and media campaigns, but we've been stymied when it's come to changing the behavior of hard-core, problem-drinkers and alcoholics.

This month, the Harvard School of Public Health is marking the "21st Birthday" (i.e., legal drinking age) of the National Designated Driver Campaign, which the School launched in late 1988 in partnership with leading TV networks and Hollywood studios. The campaign successfully demonstrated how a new social concept--the "designated driver" --could be rapidly introduced into American society, importing the concept from Scandinavia through mass communication and catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms. The campaign broke new ground when TV writers agreed to depict the use of designated drivers in more than 160 prime-time episodes of programs such as Cheers, L.A. Law, and The Cosby Show. Public opinion polls found that a majority of Americans embraced the practice of choosing a designated driver, suggesting that the campaign, along with other factors, contributed to a steep decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

When we launched the campaign in late 1988, the annual number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities stood at 23,000. Today that number has been reduced to 13,000. Studies found that millions of heavy drinkers, as well as light social drinkers, adopted the practice of choosing a designated driver. Alcoholics, however, are often in denial about their drinking problem, and cannot be reached effectively through media or law enforcement. It takes a concerted effort of interpersonal interventions, initiated by people around them, to keep these individuals off the road and get them into professional treatment programs or peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Our courts can lock someone up for a long time after a fatal crash. But courts alone can't prevent that crash. On the other hand, the legal system can do much more than was accomplished in Cambridge District Court in Galluccio's recent case. More than twenty years ago, in nearby Quincy District Court, now retired Chief Judge Albert Kramer pioneered an aggressive and effective approach, based on data showing that most first-offenders appearing before him were alcoholics or problem drinkers. (The explanation is that the odds of an arrest for drunk driving are quite low, which means that, on average, a driver will make many trips while intoxicated prior to getting caught.) Kramer sent first-offenders to an evaluation center, and those diagnosed as problem drinkers were sentenced to a 6-month, intensive treatment program. The bottom line: recidivism rates declined.

Meanwhile, over Christmas and New Year's, if you host a holiday party, or go out with friends, make sure there's a designated driver who doesn't drink.