Miss USA and Mr. FAA: Our Latest Drunk Drivers





12-12-11

Barron H. Lerner, a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University Medical Center, is the author of “The Breast Cancer Wars” and, most recently, “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900.”

When I opened my web browser earlier this week, two all-too-familiar news stories jumped out at me.

First, Virginia police had arrested Randy Babbitt, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, on suspicion of drunk driving.  Babbitt, ironically, had recently participated in a panel with MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) on the topic of alcohol use among pilots.  He subsequently resigned his position.

Second, Michigan police had arrested Rima Fakih, Miss USA from 2010, on—you guessed it—the same charges.  She had been speeding and weaving in heavy traffic.  Her blood alcohol level was 0.20%, more than twice as high as the legal limit of 0.08%.

These stories were especially unsurprising to me, as I have been immersed in the subject of drunk driving.  The Johns Hopkins University Press recently published my book, One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, a historical account of the problem.

So just what is going on here?  For over 30 years, MADD, Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID), Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) and other groups have preached the dangers of drunk driving.  Their efforts have resulted in stricter laws, promotion of designated driving and the dissemination of clever slogans such as “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”  Deaths attributed to drunk driving have fallen from roughly 25,000 each year in the early 1980s to roughly 11,000 now.

Nevertheless, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report, over 110 million instances of drunk driving still occur annually.  That Ms. Babbitt and Ms. Fakih, two people who should have known better, were pulled over and arrested is all too common.

The problem with drunk driving in this country, ultimately, is that it has only been partially stigmatized.  Too many of us still think it is acceptable to have a few drinks and then get behind the wheel.  Some of us—those most likely to have extremely high blood alcohol levels and cause crashes—even believe it is acceptable to binge drink and then get behind the wheel.

Why is this still the case?  The reasons, I believe, are multiple and complicated.  First, the alcohol and hospitality industries, while aggressively promoting “responsible drinking,” have hampered more aggressive efforts to control drunk driving—like raising taxes on alcohol, restricting provocative beer advertisements and further lowering the legal blood alcohol level.  Second, we have a strong history of libertarianism in this country that criticizes public health initiatives as evidence of a “nanny state.”  Certain libertarians thus characterize drinking and driving as some type of civil right.  Third, we have inadequate public transportation systems that could provide safer ways for drinkers to get home.  Cars are too often the only alternative.   Fourth, with the proliferation of cell phones and other mobile devices, attention has turned to texting and other forms of so-called distracted driving. 

These arguments may make sense on paper but try telling them to someone who has lost a family member or a friend to a drunk driving crash.  The fact remains that drinking drivers make a conscious choice to drive when they are potentially impaired, even if they think they hold their liquor well or swear they have only had a couple of drinks.  In many other countries with very high drinking rates, such as Norway, Sweden, Germany and Australia, drunk driving is fully stigmatized.  Getting into one’s car after drinking is seen as reprehensible.  In Sweden, for example, dinner party hosts greet guests by asking who the designated drivers will be and providing them with non-alcoholic beverages throughout the evening.  In Australia, bar patrons check their blood alcohol levels before getting into their cars and will not drive if their levels are high. 

Mr. Babbitt and Ms. Fakih probably aren’t feeling very lucky now but they are.  Either of them could have easily been involved in a crash and killed someone.  Whether or not they are eventually convicted of drunk driving, let’s hope that they—and the rest of us—have learned a lesson.  Once again.


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