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.