Let's play a game of truth or dare. We'll start with a few easy questions, ones that shouldn't be too tough for you to answer.
How many of you did something stupid when you were younger?
(My guess is there are a lot of you mentally raising your hands while staring at this computer screen -- myself included).
How many of you ever had a few drinks before reaching the magic age of 21?
How many of you have ever tried pot (even if you didn't inhale)?
How many of you have ever gotten behind the wheel of a car after having a few drinks, maybe more?
Now how many of you pick your nose?
I'm going to go on a limb and guess that the last question made you blush more than the others. It's the question that you probably would be most likely to fib about if we were actually playing this little game of "Truth or Dare" in front of a group of people you know. I say this because this is the observation made by Jennifer Flynn on an episode of Oprah. Flynn's daughter Katie was just 7 years old when she was decapitated in a car crash caused by a drunk driver who plowed into the limousine that was carrying the Flynns from a family wedding where Katie served as flower girl. In her first press conference following the tragedy Jennifer Flynn described the horror of the crash that severely injured her parents, husband, and other child, and also killed the limo driver Stanley Rabinowitz, then said simply, "Drunk driving did this to us."
The most powerful point Flynn raised on Oprah is that the fault does not lie solely with drunk drivers. It lies in the nonchalant way our society treats them. As she accurately noted that day, if you were to ask a room full of people "have any of you ever gotten behind the wheel after a party feeling a little 'buzzed,'" many wouldn't be shy about raising their hands. Ask that same room "How many of you pick your nose," or "how many of you don't wash your hands after going to the bathroom" and not a single hand would go up. That's because there's a level of embarrassment we as a society attach to those behaviors that we still don't yet attach to driving drunk -- or buzzed or a little tipsy, whatever you want to call it -- particularly when it comes to celebrities.
Congressman Vito Fosella gets pulled over for driving under the influence, and the scandal becomes not that he could have killed a child, but that he fathered one out-of-wedlock with his girlfriend.
Paris Hilton gets pulled over for a DUI and later dismisses it as "nothing" while her publicist breezily jokes, "She's been known to have a drink or two." (Another publicist optimistically suggested that the move might help her image by reinforcing her status as a party princess.)
The celebrity list goes on: Charles Barkley, Shia Lebouf, Lindsay Lohan, Diana Ross, Mischa Barton, Mel Gibson, Glen Campbell, and countless others. Type in the words "actress" and "DUI" into Google and more than half a million hits appear. Type in the words "actor" and "DUI" and nearly a million hits appear.
But no one really believes that a drunk driving arrest has had any real impact on the careers of those mentioned above. (In some instances, what occurs during the drunk driving arrest actually garners more negative attention then the act of drunk driving itself think Mel Gibson and his anti-semitic rant or Vito Fosella's love child revelation or Shia Lebouf's accident injuries allegedly having a costly impact on his filming schedule.)
The point is rarely do we treat drunk driving like what it really is: the opportunity for someone to kill. In fact it seems that it is only when a celebrity actually does kill someone (such as Prison Break actor Lane Garrison or former Yankee Jim Leyritz), that their behavior is roundly denounced and even then it is the act of killing someone not the act of drunk driving that evokes criticism.
Which brings me back to Michael Phelps.
Like the aforementioned celebrities, Phelps's drunk driving arrest was merely a blip in his storied career, costing him little more than a $250 fine and $55 in court costs. Yet once Phelps made Olympic history last year, the fact that he could have killed someone three years before became a non-issue for the corporations who clamored to have his name and likeness all over their products. Now those same sponsors have suddenly decided to prove that they have some real standards, so they have begun to rake Phelps over the coals -- not for what he's actually done this time around (smoking pot in private) but for what he's done to their brands.
Don't get me wrong. I get that we are a society that likes to drink. I understand that drinking yourself silly on your 21st birthday is in many ways a right of passage in our culture -- but driving yourself home after shouldn't be. Perhaps if more of our elected officials felt just as strongly about protecting us all from the dangers of drunk driving, as they do about protecting themselves from the inconvenience of having to watch what they drink before they get behind the wheel, or the inconvenience of taking a real stand on this issue, we would all be safer.
I look forward to the day when someone getting behind the wheel and almost killing you, me, or someone we love, will be enough to make that person celebrity kryptonite -- in the same way that a celebrity getting caught picking his or her nose during an Oscars acceptance speech might. Because until that happens -- until we as a society set that standard -- we will continue to see tragedies like that of Katie Flynn and her family.