On the night of May 14, 1988, Larry Mahoney was drunk, so drunk that his blood-alcohol concentration—the percentage of alcohol in his blood—was more than twice Kentucky’s legal limit at the time of . 10 percent. Regardless, Mahoney got behind the wheel of his pickup truck and proceeded to drive northbound in the southbound lane of Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Kentucky, crashing head-on into a church bus returning from an amusement park. The collision ruptured the bus’s gas tank, causing a fire that killed twenty-three children and four adults and injured a dozen others, mostly as a result of smoke inhalation.
Mahoney had no recollection that he had caused the deaths of twenty-seven people until he woke up in a hospital bed the following morning with minor injuries. He was subsequently convicted of assault, manslaughter, wanton endangerment, and drunken driving and was sent to the Kentucky State Reformatory, where he served a nine-and-a-half-year sentence. Many observers believe Mahoney deserved a more severe sentence for his crime. This fact is a testament to how much the public’s attitude toward drunk driving has changed since the late 1970s, when it was not perceived as criminal behavior.
This sea change in public perception was what Candy Lightner set out to accomplish when she founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk hit-and-run driver as she walked down a suburban street in California. The driver, who had been convicted four times of driving while intoxicated (DWI) prior to taking Cari’s life, received a two-year prison sentence, but was permitted to serve time in a work camp and a halfway house.
Outraged by the leniency of the sentence, Lightner focused MADD on raising public awareness of drinking and driving as a serious crime and advocated tough legislation to deter and apprehend drunk drivers. Beginning in the early 1980s, the lobbying efforts of MADD began to have a significant influence on federal and state policy to combat drunk driving. Based on statistics showing that sixteen- to twenty-year-olds, although only 10 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers, were involved in 20 percent of all fatal alcohol-related crashes, then-president Ronald Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act on July 17, 1984.
The law mandated that states raise their minimum drinking age to twenty-one or lose federal highway funds. By the mid-1990s, all fifty states had complied. States also instituted tougher penalties for drunk drivers, such as mandatory jail terms for first-time offenders and on-the-spot driver’s license suspensions for those failing or refusing to take a breath test. Data from the Department of Transportation show overall alcoholrelated fatalities declining 36 percent between 1982 and 1997.
In the 1990s, prevention advocates focused on changing federal law to lower the level at which drivers are presumed to be legally intoxicated based on their blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). Primarily determined by breath tests administered by police officers during traffic stops, BACs indicate the level of impairment drivers may be experiencing due to the percentage of alcohol in their blood. Until the late 1990s, most states enforced a . 10 percent BAC. To reach this level of intoxication, the average 170-pound man would have to consume slightly more than five twelveounce beers in an hour.
That same man would reach the lower . 08 percent BAC limit favored by prevention advocates after consuming four twelve-ounce beers in an hour. On October 23, 2000, then-president Bill Clinton signed into law a national . 08 BAC standard as part of the Transportation Appropriations Bill. States that do not lower their BAC limit to . 08 by 2004 will lose 2 percent of their federal highway money. As of summer 2001, twenty-six states had set their BAC limits at . 08. According to the Insurance Information Institute, 16,068 people were killed in 2000 in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes, a 1.
8 percent increase over 1999, and alcohol continues to be a factor in 38 percent of all traffic fatalities. Proponents of . 08 BAC laws believe that these statistics demonstrate the need for stronger deterrence and prevention measures to continue the progress being made against drunk driving. MADD contends that the level of intoxication permitted by states with . 10 BAC laws allows for dangerously impaired driving, and that adopting the . 08 BAC limit in every state will save over 500 lives each year.
Explains MADD, “The vast majority of drivers, even experienced drinkers, are significantly impaired at . 08 with regard to critical driving tasks such as braking, steering, changing lanes, divided attention tasks, and judgement. . . . If every state adopted a . 08 BAC . . . law, hundreds of lives would be saved every year, with thousands of injuries prevented and millions of dollars saved. ” An April 1999 study of all fifty states conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed MADD’s assertions. It compared states with .
08 BAC laws to states with . 10 BAC laws before and after the laws were passed. The study found that states that passed . 08 BAC laws reduced the involvement of drunk drivers in fatalities by 8 percent. It also estimated that 274 lives had been saved in states that had passed . 08 BAC laws and that if all fifty states enacted . 08 BAC laws, 590 lives could be saved each year. Supporters of . 08 BAC also value the deterrent effect the laws have on potential drinking drivers who might otherwise choose to drive themselves home under the more lenient .
10 BAC limit. The editors of Drivers. com, a website providing information on driver safety and behavior, argue that . 08 BAC laws send the message to drivers that even though they might not feel drunk after a few drinks, their driving ability is substantially impaired. “Alcohol impaired drivers at . 08 BAC, who crash at a much higher rate than drivers who have not taken alcohol, . . . typically do not feel impaired. . . . A problem with setting legal BAC near limits at which impairment becomes visible [such as .
10 BAC] is that it tends to send a wrong message to drivers that there is no impairment at lower levels, a few drinks becomes OK. ” The tendency of . 08 BAC laws to make those who have consumed alcohol more aware of their impaired driving ability, combined with the message that states are cracking down on drunk driving, will deter more drunks from getting behind the wheel, according to . 08 BAC proponents. Opponents to a national . 08 BAC standard contend that drivers are not dangerously impaired after reaching .
08 BAC and that the overwhelming majority of alcohol-related fatalities are caused by drivers with BAC levels much higher than . 08. Supporters of this view, ranging from trade associations for the alcohol, bar, and restaurant industries to individuals concerned with protecting civil liberties, assert that instead of preventing drunk driving fatalities, . 08 BAC laws result in the arrest of responsible social drinkers. Argues Eric Peters, a nationally syndicated automotive columnist, “Studies . . . have found that most alcohol-related crashes involve motorists with BAC levels of 0.
12 or higher. These ‘super drunk’ motorists are the ones doing the damage—yet the social drinker is taking most of the flack. The majority of drivers arrested for ‘driving under the influence’ . . . were not driving erratically or giving any evidence of impairment. ” By wasting time arresting harmless motorists, police enforcement of . 08 BAC does little to solve the problem of chronic drunk drivers with high BACs. MADD’s founder Candy Lightner, who left the organization in the mid-1980s and went to work as a lobbyist against .
08 BAC laws for the American Beverage Institute in 1994, agrees with Peters. She has said that “police ought to be concentrating their resources on arresting drunk drivers—not those drivers who happen to have been drinking. I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction. ” Civil libertarians are troubled by the fact that . 08 BAC laws establish an arbitrary level at which a driver is presumed to be drunk—particularly since that level is one that many people reach after consuming two or three drinks.
These critics point out that many factors affect a person’s reaction to alcohol, including their weight, metabolism, and how much they have had to eat. In addition, driver impairment is not solely caused by the consumption of alcohol. Explains Jim Holt, a philosophy and public policy writer for the Wall Street Journal, “Drivers talking on cell phones . . . have the same accident rate as drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0. 10%. . . . Elderly drivers are more deadly still. . . . Clearly there are many ‘impaired’ drivers on the road who present a far greater peril than do drivers with a blood alcohol level between 0.
08% and 0. 10%. ” For these reasons, drivers with . 08 BACs should be punished only if they cause an actual accident or commit traffic violations like speeding or running a red light, according to Holt. Because the consequences of driving while legally intoxicated involve tough penalties such as mandatory jail terms, heavy fines, license suspensions, and even the confiscation of motor vehicles in some jurisdictions, the issue of a nationwide . 08 BAC standard has serious implications for drivers. Convinced that a .
08 BAC law in every state will send a message to the American public that drunk driving is a criminal act that simply will not be tolerated, groups like MADD are continuing to pressure state lawmakers to get in line and adopt the federal . 08 BAC standard. Other observers are not at all convinced that punishing responsible drinkers with criminal convictions is a just solution to a problem primarily caused by chronic drunk drivers. Under the threat of losing federal highway funds, it seems inevitable that all fifty states will eventually enact .
08 BAC laws. Given this victory, prevention groups may begin to push for even lower BAC limits in the next decade, a battle that should certainly become heated. Enormous gains have been made against drunk driving over the past twenty years and have created the general impression that drunk driving is largely under control. The contentious debate over . 08 BAC laws demonstrates, however, that not all motorists are comfortable with the loss of personal freedom and invasion of privacy that increasingly accompany prevention measures.
Reformers run the risk of losing the public’s support if their efforts to eliminate drunk driving appear too punitive toward responsible drinkers. Whether or not . 08 BAC laws are a fair and effective solution to the problem of drunk driving is one of the issues discussed in At Issue: Drunk Driving. The authors also discuss the problem of chronic drunk drivers, underage drinking, the use of sobriety checkpoints and passive alcohol sensors, and confiscating the cars of convicted drunk drivers.