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The “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” ad campaign began in 1983, the year I turned 13. A few years later, with about nine of us squished into my 1981 Oldsmobile Omega as we puttered toward blown curfews and cross, dozing parents, I remember thinking, "Actually, friends do let friends drive drunk … if the friends are drunk, too.”

Today, the best slogan would be “Friends don’t let friends drive to the drinking place.”

Impaired people make poor decisions. That's what impaired means. And the anti-drunken driving movement, while it has had phenomenal successes, needs a new message that, by accounting for the horrid judgment of the alcohol-impaired, could save more lives: 

The focus of anti-drunken driving advocacy has evolved since those first ads aired. “When we started with ‘Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,’ we needed to change fundamental behaviors,” Ad Council Chief Campaign Development Officer Michelle Hillman said.  “We were going after heavily inebriated people who drove, trying to change the social norms that made that acceptable.”

That campaign worked. Drunken driving deaths fell from 22,000 annually in 1985 to 13,000 a year by 1995. But then progress plateaued for about a decade, Hillman said, and around 2005 the Ad Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began pushing a new message: “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.” 

“The second phase was addressing people on the edge, not sure whether they were OK to drive or not,” Hillman said. “Maybe they went out for ‘just one,’ or food, and consumed more than they planned. They needed to see they were impaired, and dangerous.”

This second-wave strategy, the one the Ad Council is still focused on, reduced drunken-driving fatalities another 30 percent annually, but the numbers have plateaued, again. 

The anti-drunken driving commercials the Ad Council is airing now focus on people in bars wisely deciding not to drive home because they realize they are buzzed. In one ad, called “Legend,” a young man named Jordan is lauded because “in the middle of happy hour,” he realized he was texting and using social media like a goof, “knew he was buzzed, and got a ride.”

But that doesn’t happen much. Many of the parking lots of the local bars or alcohol-heavy restaurants are full when you drive by at 10 p.m. and empty when you drive by at 8 a.m. because nearly everyone drinking there, who drove there, drove home.

I know how drinkers operate because I’m an alcoholic who drove drunk thousands of times before I got sober 16 years ago. I will never stop being ashamed of that. And if you had asked me back then if I thought it was OK to drive drunk, I'd have answered, "Absolutely not!" But I never thought about it. I left the house sober enough to drive and I drove home too addled by drink to worry. And if I were to find myself drunk in a bar tonight, I imagine I’d stumble out to my car and drive home.

And that's exactly what most people who drive to bars and parties and drink too much do, too. They make the terrible decision to get behind the wheel because "It's just down the road" or without any thought at all.

That’s what impaired means.

Our sober selves can never trust our drunken selves to make good decisions. The best way to avoid drunken driving is by refusing to drive to where the drinks are. And that message, anchoring the next stage of the anti-drunken driving crusade, is the best way to once again start reducing fatality numbers stubbornly stuck at about 10,000 a year.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.


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