There was a time when it seemed the efforts of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, along with educational programs in schools, increased traffic stops and DUI checkpoints, and hugely elevated legal penalties, would eventually be enough to stop the carnage.
But in truth there were always going to be people who did not heed the warnings because they could not. I know because I was schooled in the MADD era, saw all the after-school specials, and cut up in the gym bleachers during all the Students Against Drunk Driving rallies.
I poked fun at the bizarre skits and directed quips at the pics of terrible car crashes, but I also understood driving drunk was dangerous and wrong, and was terrified that my beloved father did it so often.
But for me, any concerns about the dangers of impaired driving always evaporated with the first drink of the evening, a drink that came every evening for 20 years and was always followed by many, many more.
I drove drunk nearly every night from 1986 until 2003, when I had my last drink. I did a lot of senseless things drunk (willingly watching the television program “Thirtysomething,” line-dancing) because that’s what drunks do.
Since then I’ve spent a lot of time in church basements with other folks who once drank like me. I’ve never met one who supported drunken driving, but I’ve rarely met one who didn’t do it regularly before they got sober.
The only thing that can stop most drinkers like us from driving drunk is cars that won’t let us. This week's recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board that all new vehicles in the United States be required to have blood-alcohol monitoring systems that can stop intoxicated people from driving is the next weapon in the battle MADD started, and continues to wage.
And the need is suddenly growing once again.
MADD was founded in 1980, and was just beginning to gather steam when alcohol-involved fatalities in the United States hit an annual high of 21,113 in 1982. The success of initiatives started by the group and its partners and allies is a public-health triumph: Drunken driving deaths dropped consistently for 20 years to a low of 9,943 in 2014.
The number had stuck around 10,000 since, frustrating advocates. But vehicle miles traveled were rising, making stable death rates a small triumph, even so.
That changed in 2020 when drunk-driving deaths jumped 14% nationally as miles driven plummeted.
The hike in fatalities from 10,196 to 11,654 is troubling, but it’s the 29% increase in drunk-driving deaths per mile traveled that's sounding alarms. The jump came when the pandemic had people driving less, and as overall accident rates in Suffolk and Nassau counties, which almost always lead New York counties in drunk-driving deaths, declined about 25% year-over-year.
A deadly, entirely preventable behavior that has killed at least 600,000 Americans in the past 40 years is again on the rise.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommendation is not binding. It’s the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that would have to enact the change.
And before that happens, there will likely be extraordinary pressure against the move from the beer, liquor, wine, restaurant and bar industries, among others.
But it has to come, because drunks are natural-born fools, and the only thing that will stop them from driving when they’re bombed is a car that won't start.
Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.