One-Minute Book Reviews

April 30, 2012

‘One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900’ — Why Are So Many Americans Smashed on the Highways?

Filed under: Current Events,History — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:44 am
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Margaret Mitchell’s killer and the wide receiver Donté Stallworth are among the people who spent little time in jail for taking a life 

One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900. By Barron H. Lerner. Johns Hopkins University Press, 218 pp., $24.95.

By Janice Harayda

A paradox of modern life is that Americans stigmatize smokers but have a history of leniency toward drunk drivers who often do more harm. In 1949 Margaret Mitchell died after being hit by the car of an off-duty taxi driver who had alcohol on his breath and 22 previous traffic violations. Hugh Gravitt spent just 10 months and 20 days in jail for killing the author of Gone With the Wind. He also won remarkable sympathy from journalists and others, including the Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, who believed that Mitchell had inadvertently dashed into the path of his car. As late as 1989, Sibley wrote that she hoped to see “a book that exonerates the taxi driver.”

Barron Lerner shows in One for the Road that such forbearance remains so common, it may be the rule rather than the exception. In 2009 the Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donté Stallworth killed a jaywalking pedestrian with his car after a night of drinking in Miami Beach. He pled guilty to driving under the influence (DUI) manslaughter and received a 30-day jail sentence (of which he eventually served 24 days). At about the same time, the New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress accidentally shot himself in the leg with a hidden gun that he had carried into a nightclub. His sentence: two years for a crime that harmed no one but himself.

The different fates of the wide receivers suggest the contradictions in American views of drunk driving. For decades respected studies have shown that drivers generally begin to become impaired when they have blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.05%. But all 50 states set their legal limit at 0.08%, higher than the level at which the risk of a crash increases. Stricter tests of drunk driving – and penalties for violating them – apply in Australia and much of Asia and Europe. It’s illegal to drive with a BAC above 0.05% in France and Italy and above 0.02% in Norway, Sweden and Russia.

Lerner believes America’s complacency results in part from a clash between basic values: the desire to promote public safety and to protect to individual rights. It also reflects the national love of cars, the popular view of alcoholism as a disease that needs treatment rather than incarceration, and a new focus on the dangers of texting, talking on cell phones, and other forms of “distracted driving.” A few months ago, a Philadelphia Inquirer headline read “Distracted is the new drunk,” as though one danger had replaced another.

One for the Road leaves no doubt that the U.S. could reduce the number of drunk-driving casualties — 13,000–17,000 deaths and countless injuries a year. Higher “sin taxes” on cigarettes have helped to deter smoking and would be likely to have a similar effect on drunk driving. And new forms of technology such as ignition interlock devices could help if more states required them.

But whether the U.S. can muster the political will needed to reduce the casualties is uncertain. Some of the tougher laws on drunk driving that exist today resulted from campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s by the Surgeon General C. Everett Koop or by groups such as RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and Mothers Against Driving (MADD), which have lost much of their clout. That movement appears to have stalled. And a powerful alcohol lobby stands ready to push back if it regained momentum.

Lerner is a doctor who specializes in public health and describes all of this with almost clinical detachment, although he appears to favor changes such as lowering the legal blood alcohol content. And his book is less a history of drunk driving than of the up-and-down national effort to control it. That focus can make for dry reading but provides a welcome counterpoint to the emotionalism that often taints media reports on related personal tragedies. One for the Road reminds us that other public health campaigns, worthy as they are, shouldn’t drive out efforts to reduce alcohol-fueled casualties on the road. As Lerner writes, “Surely it is hard to argue that someone who smokes, especially away from other people, deserves more scorn than someone who drives drunk.”

Best line: In the movie Animal House, four fraternity members wreck a car after a night of drinking. “Although the dean admonishes one of them, warning that ‘Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, son,’ the film’s irreverent message was, of course, exactly the opposite.”

Worst line: “Perhaps nothing better demonstrates the ambiguities and contradictions of drunk driving than the stories of two women involved in the founding of MADD: Candy Lightner and Cindi Lamb. Both women lost daughters to drunk drivers, although Lamb’s daughter, Laura, was paralyzed for six years before dying. In the early 1990s, both women went to work for the alcohol industry, the very people who manufactured and vigorously advertised the product that had, indirectly, led to their children’s deaths. As we will see, Lightner and Lamb were not naïve at all and had good reasons for doing what they did.’ That’s a memorable passage, but Lerner doesn’t convince you that their reasons were “good.”

Published: September 2011

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© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

June 18, 2009

Nicotine Patches Encourage Teenagers to Smoke – Late Night With Jan Harayda

Tim Harford’s The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World (Random House, 272 pp., $15, paperback) came out in paperback recently, and if the Food and Drug Administration gains power to regulate tobacco products as seems likely, regulators might learn from it.  William Grimes wrote in a New York Times review of the book:

“Nicotine patches and nicotine gum, intended to wean smokers from their dangerous habit, actually seem to encourage teenagers to take the first puff, for reasons that any economist might have predicted. Since there are now products to help smokers quit, it becomes less risky, as a purely rational proposition, to pick up the habit.”

Steven E. Landsburg makes a related point his entertainingly contrarian The Armchair Economist (Free Press, 1995), a book that with a catchier title might have become the Freakonomics of its day. In a chapter semi-facetiously called “How Seat Belts Kill,” Landsburg describes what happened in the 1960s when federal legislation for the first time required Americans to wear seat belts:

“The number of auto accidents increased. The reason is that the threat of being killed in an accident is a powerful incentive to drive carefully. But a driver with a seat belt and a padded dashboard faces less of a threat. Because people respond to incentives, drivers are less careful. The result is more accidents.”

Landsburg goes on:

“An interesting question remains. How big is the effect in question? How many additional accidents were caused by the safety regulations of the 1960s: The regulations tend to reduce the number of driver deaths by making it easier to survive an accident. At the same time, the regulations tend to increase the number of driver deaths by encouraging reckless behavior. Which effect is greater?”

In the mid-1970s, University of Chicago researcher Sam Peltzman studied the question and found that two effects were of about the same size and cancelled each other out, Landsburg says:

“There were more accidents and fewer diver deaths per accident, but the total number of deaths remained essentially unchanged. An interesting side effect appear to have been an increase in the number of pedestrian deaths; pedestrians, after all, gain no benefit from padded dashboards.”

“Late Night With Jan Harayda” is an occasional series of posts about books that appear after 10 a.m. Eastern time that may include commentary but do not include reviews, which typically appear earlier in the day.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 1, 2009

CDC Projected Death Toll for Flu Pandemic: 89,000 to 207,000 People — Army Estimates That 1.7 Million Americans Could Die

Filed under: News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:08 am
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In 1999 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report on what might happen if a pandemic virus – similar to the relatively mild virus of 1968 – struck the United States. It estimated that between 89,000 and 207,000 people in the U.S. would die. Why so many?

John Barry responds in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (Penguin, 2005):

“The reason for this high toll is the same reason that the CDC has concluded that, despite medical advances,  more Americans are now dying from ordinary, endemic influenza than in the past: in 1918, 1957, and even 1968 relatively few people alive had impaired immune systems. Today a large and growing number of people do – primarily the elderly, but also cancer survivors who have undergone chemotherapy or radiation, transplant recipients, those infected with HIV, and others.”

The figures in the first paragraph appear in Barry’s fine book, and his endnotes give their source as “Modeling the Economic Impact of Pandemic Influenza in the United States: Implications for Setting Priorities for Intervention,” by Martin I. Meltzer, Nancy J. Cox, and Keiji Fukuda. (See Figure 2 under “Results – Deaths.”) Meltzer’s paper has other information about the possible scope of a pandemic, including the percentages of deaths expected in different age groups.

Barry also writes that “the World Health Organization estimates that a virus akin to that of 1968 would, in today’s world, kill between 2 million and 7.4 million people worldwide.” The Washington Post reported in 2006 that WHO estimated that a virus akin to that of 1918 would kill 62 million people worldwide.

The CDC’s projected figures are much lower than those in a United States Army War College Program Research Paper “The 1918 Flu Pandemic: Implications for Homeland Security in the New Millennium,” which you can find easily by pasting the phrase in quotations into the Google search bar (though I can’t seem to link to it). That paper puts the estimated death toll for a flu pandemic at 1.7 million Americans.

For more on flu-related books, please follow www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

April 30, 2009

Could the Swine Flu Pandemic Have Two Waves? Quote of the Day From ‘Flu,’ Gina Kolata’s Account of the 1918 Pandemic

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:22 pm
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Could the latest swine flu outbreak be the first of two waves of the disease? And could the second be deadlier than the one that has just struck? Few medical experts are discussing the possibility publicly. But you might wonder after reading Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, by Gina Kolata, a science reporter for the New York Times. Kolata writes:

“No one knows for sure where the 1918 flu came from or how it turned into such a killer strain. All that is known is that it began as an ordinary flu but then it changed. It infected people in the spring of 1918, sickening its victims for about three days with chills and fever, but rarely killing them. Then it disappeared, returning in the fall with the power of a juggernaut.

“In retrospect, medical experts talk of the two waves of the 1918 flu. The first was banal, easily forgotten. No one mentioned plagues or germ warfare when the influenza epidemic first arrived. But when it came back, in the second wave, it had turned into something monstrous, bearing little resemblance to what is ordinarily thought of as the flu.”

May 20, 2008

How Gross Is Your Tap Water? ‘Bottlemania’ Has an Answer

Filed under: News,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:07 pm
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Kaitlin Bell says that Elizabeth Royte’s new Bottlemania (Bloomsbury, 242 pp., $24.99), an indictment of the bottled-water industry, does more than fault some of the major players in the field, including Coke, Pepsi and Nestlé: “It also provides some devastating revelations about the quality of America’s public water supply. In stomach-churning detail, Ms. Royte describes how arsenic, rocket fuel, antidepressants, birth-defect–inducing herbicides and even potentially carcinogenic byproducts of the disinfection process all make it into municipal water supplies.” Read her full review in the May 18 New York Observer here:
www.observer.com/2008/raise-glass-eau-de-bloomberg.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

May 15, 2007

Steven Johnson’s ‘The Ghost Map’: How Two Men Helped to End a Fearsome Epidemic

Filed under: History,Nonfiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:27 am
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The fascinating true story of a doctor and clergyman who defied the establishment view that cholera was an airborne – not waterborne — disease

The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. By Steven Johnson. Riverhead, 299 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Did you know that the doctor who gave chloroform to a grateful Queen Victoria during childbirth also helped to end a cholera epidemic? I didn’t. And details like this abound in Steven Johnson’s fascinating history of how two men took on the medical establishment after cholera erupted in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map reads at times like a cross between The Hot Zone with The Professor and the Madman, a medical horror story set in a gaslit city that bred disease and superstition. Johnson begins, unpromisingly, with a dozen pages on the difficulty of human waste disposal in a metropolis that had two million residents. But he quickly gets on top of his story of an epidemic that began when a mother tossed out a slop bucket in which she had soaked a sick baby’s diapers. From then on his book moves swiftly until he tries in the last chapter to extrapolate from cholera to modern threats such as suicide bombers and nuclear winter. This polemical leap is ultimately much less persuasive than what has come before it – a well-told tale of how a doctor and an Anglican curate changed the view of one of the world’s most feared diseases.

Best line: “At the height of a nineteenth-century cholera outbreak, a thousand Londoners would often die of the disease in a matter of weeks – out of a population that was a quarter of the size of modern New York. Imagine the terror and panic if a biological attack killed four thousand otherwise healthy New Yorkers over a twenty-day period. Living amid cholera in 1854 was like living in a world where tragedies on that scale happened week after week, year after year.”

Worst line: Any line that shows Johnson’s promiscuous use of the word “irony,” which he turns into a one-size-fits-all substitute for “sadly,” “oddly,” “coincidentally” or “paradoxically.” For example: “The sad irony of his argument for the waterborne theory of cholera is that he had all the primary medical explanations in place by the winter of 1848–1849, and yet they fell on deaf ears for almost a decade.” That is a sad fact, not a sad “irony.” Would you write, “The sad irony of Jan Harayda’s post on how Mitch Albom is writing at a third-grade level is that she did this on November 16, 2006, and yet it fell on deaf ears for almost five months and Albom continued to sell books at a frightening rate”?

Recommended if … you like popular history, especially books about the history of science or medicine, such as Dava Sobel’s Longitude.

Furthermore: Johnson also wrote Everything Bad Is Good for You.

Editor: Sean McDonald

Published: October 2006

Links: www.stevenberlinjohnson.com

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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