The Points Interview: Barron Lerner

As Points prepares to ring in the new year, what better way than by discussing the history of drunk driving?  The nineteenth Points Interview is the last for 2011–here’s to a similarly engaging set of interviews for 2012–and features Barron Lerner, author of the recently published One For the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  Barron Lerner is currently the Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation associate professor of Medicine and Public Health at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health.  We’re delighted to get his thoughts on his latest work.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book is a history of drunk driving in the United States and the efforts to control it.  It Cover of the One for the Roadbegins in the early twentieth century, when the introduction of automobiles led to the first crashes and deaths.  Appropriately, people were appalled and the first laws were
passed.  But with the “failure” of Prohibition after 1933, attention shifted from the perils of alcohol to the disease of alcoholism.  In this climate, drunk driving laws were weak and poorly enforced.  Astoundingly, the legal limit for a DWI conviction in this country was
0.15% for decades, roughly the equivalent of 6-9 drinks on an empty stomach.  All of the benefit of the doubt went to the drunk drivers, not their victims.  Finally, in the 1960s, the U.S. government got involved in drunk driving control, followed by the citizen-activists
of RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in the 1980s.  For the first time, drunk driving was truly stigmatized, rather than being seen as an acceptable rite of passage for young men.  The last portions of the book examine both the
successes of the anti-drunk driving movement and the continued barriers to eliminating intoxicated driving in this country.  These barriers include the lobbying efforts of the alcohol industry, a libertarian backlash and competition from other public health campaigns including, ironically, distracted driving.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am all over their turf.  The alcohol connection is obvious. I have told the history of one complication of alcohol use.  To some degree, drunk driving has followed trends in the history of alcohol. Rates went down during Prohibition and up after Repeal.  Rates have
also gone down in the last 20 years, concurrent with declining rates of alcohol use.  But drunk driving also has a complicated relationship with alcohol.  Is the biggest problem driving by the relatively small population of binge drinkers or the much larger population of “social drinkers”?  Should drunk driving activists also campaign against binge drinking or does that make them appear to be anti-alcohol and thus vulnerable to the charge of being neo-Prohibitionist?  How about raising taxes on alcohol as a way of lowering drunk driving rates, thereby using a strategy that worked so well for cigarettes?

As far as drugs go, the history of drunk driving is a great story about competing legal and public health approaches to a social problem.  The War on Drugs also favored a law-and-order philosophy and has not been very successful.  Has drunk driving control also suffered from too great a focus on passing laws and putting people in jail?  To what degree should “victims’ rights” dictate social policy?  Would it make more sense to use public health strategies to limit alcohol sales and decrease dangerous driving?

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Most interesting for me were the comments I received from people who thought I was being too moralistic and must have lost a loved one to a drunk driver.  (Thankfully, I have not.)  I believe that my conclusions follow directly from the story that I tell: we continue to tacitly condone a dangerous activity that is entirely unnecessary and represents a flawed choice by those who insist on doing it.  In this sense, I followed in the footsteps of certain activists who were criticized by sociologists and statisticians for supposedly ignoring the realities of drunk driving due to their passion for the cause.  So be it.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone from One for the Road are you most curious to see turned over soon?

The stone I would like turned over may be buried too deep in the ground.  I would like to know what the alcohol and hospitality industries did to thwart anti-drunk driving measures during the 20th century.  The anti-tobacco lawsuits led to the disclosure of thousands of secret documents that revealed the perfidy of the cigarette manufacturers, who lied about the danger of their product.  Although I don’t think the alcohol industry was nearly as venal, I would suspect that it used aggressive tactics to both spin data and discredit opponents.  Only when such information is revealed can we learn the whole history of drunk driving in this country.

BONUS QUESTION: In a Ken Burns film version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Anyone who does not answer David McCullough to this question needs to have his or her head examined.  He is the BEST.  But the late Foster Brooks, famous for his impersonation of a drunk on the old Dean Martin Roasts, would probably be a more fitting choice.

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