3:49pm

Thu November 17, 2011
Author Interviews

U.S. Behind The Curve In Drunk Driving, Author Finds

When Barron Lerner was writing his book on the history of drunk driving in America — and efforts to control it — he carried out an experiment at home that involved a bottle of vodka, a shot glass and a Breathalyzer. He was the guinea pig.

"I was trying to figure out just how drunk you had to be in order to not drive safely," says Lerner, a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, who wrote One for the Road. He decided to drink and test his levels — but he didn't actually get into a car.

"And, as I suspected after doing my research, one can drink an awful lot and be pretty buzzed and still legally drive in the United States," Lerner tells NPR's Melissa Block.

With five shots, Lerner's blood alcohol level was .08.

"Of course, .08 would be illegal, but .075 would be fine, so the point was made," Lerner says. "It showed me that we have a very lenient level in this country. That in contrast to other countries where levels are much stricter — much lower — you can still drink an awful lot in this country and get into your car and drive legally. And that bothered me, having worked on research on this topic for such a long time, that things are still that way."

It wasn't too long ago, however, that "driving while intoxicated" was defined as a blood alcohol level of .15 — twice that of the limit today — something that Lerner calls "quite remarkable."

One of the things Lerner writes about is the history of public attitudes toward drunk driving. He uses the example of Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, who was crossing the street with her husband in Atlanta in 1949 when she was hit by a drunk driver and died.

According to Lerner, people initially reacted with horror, but then attitudes shifted and there started to be more sympathy for the driver — who had had 22 previous arrests for driving violations, including speeding and drunk driving — than for Mitchell.

"This is such an instructive case about drunk driving in this country," Lerner says. "For years and years, back in that era, people who were killed or victimized by a drunk driver were seen as being in the wrong place at the wrong time — that these things happen. And that was very much the case with Margaret Mitchell. After the initial outrage, people started to say, 'Well, it was her time to go.' I read so many stories like that, and every one was almost more shocking than the next — that we could have had a society that was so passive to a crime that was killing 25,000 people a year for so long."

Now, alcohol-related deaths from crashes are down to about 10,000 or 11,000 a year.

"There's been a lot of progress, and I wouldn't want to minimize that. But I saw a recent statistic put out by the CDC that suggested that there are least 110 million instances of drunk driving in this country still a year," Lerner says.

Other countries have much lower thresholds for drunk driving — like .02 in Sweden and Norway. But Lerner says he doesn't anticipate the threshold in the United States to drop because of political will.

"Groups like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], sure they'd love the blood alcohol level to go down to .05, but it's not really something that they're pushing that aggressively, because politically I think it's a nonstarter," Lerner says. "There are lots of forces in this country that don't want to see the blood alcohol level dropped further for safe driving."

Instead, Lerner says he sees hope in technologies, such as Breathalyzers installed in cars — known as ignition interlocks — that you have to breathe into before your car can start.

Some states are already using this technology for people who have DWI convictions.

"I would be much more in favor of those becoming widespread," Lerner says.

Another is an infrared technology in steering wheels that would be able to read blood-alcohol levels when you put your hands on the wheel — and if it's too high, the car would either stop or would not be able to start.

But Lerner says the latter would "generate a lot of opposition from the libertarian types."

"That's something that will be very tough to both fund in this country and to get across politically," he says. "But to my mind, when I want to drive home at night, I don't want people driving in my direction who have been drinking."

And Lerner says — unlike other countries — Americans still look down on designated drivers.

"The fact is other countries use designated drivers incredibly enthusiastically," he says. "And we still sort of look down on it, and people aren't willing to go to a party and be the designated driver because they think they can't enjoy themselves. And that's really a pity."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Guy Raz.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. When Dr. Barron Lerner was writing his book on the history of drunk driving in America - and efforts to control it - he carried out an experiment at home. It involved a bottle of vodka, a shot glass, and a Breathalyzer. He was the guinea pig. Dr. Lerner is a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University. He joins me from New York, and Dr. Lerner, why this experiment, what were you trying to show?

DR. BARRON LERNER: Well, I was trying to figure out just how drunk you had to be in order to not drive safely. So, I figured I would put some alcohol in my body and pretend I was driving. I didn't actually go in the car. And, as I suspected after doing my research, one can drink an awful lot and be pretty buzzed and still legally drive in the United States.

BLOCK: How many shots did you have to do to stay under that limit of .08 percent alcohol?

LERNER: I got up to .08 with five shots.

BLOCK: Five shots.

LERNER: And I was pretty wasted. And of course, .08 would be illegal, but .075 would be fine, so the point was made.

BLOCK: What did that show you?

LERNER: It showed me that - and I think people don't realize this - that we have a very lenient level in this country; that in contrast to other countries where levels are much stricter, much lower, you can still drink an awful lot in this country and get into your car and drive legally. And that bothered me, having worked on research on this topic for a long time, that things were still that way.

BLOCK: It's interesting when you think about that accepted blood alcohol level. It wasn't too long ago that the DWI was defined in this country as a level of .15 percent. That's just about twice what it is today.

LERNER: That's quite amazing, and I didn't get my level up that high because I wouldn't have known what I would have been doing, but it is quite remarkable that this country went very lenient after the Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and very tolerant. And indeed, you could drink up to .15 and really be completely disoriented and completely wasted and not ever be convicted of DWI.

BLOCK: As you write about public attitudes toward drunk driving and how they've evolved over time, you use as an example the case of Margaret Mitchell, the author of "Gone With the Wind," who has hit by a car and killed in 1949 in Atlanta by a young driver who had apparently been drinking, wasn't given a drunk driving test, but was charged with drunken driving. What was the reaction to her death?

LERNER: Well, this was story I think the people really had forgotten. No one really remembers how Margaret Mitchell died, I think. And the initial response was sort of horror. Here was a guy, it turned out, who was a taxi driver who had 22 previous arrests for driving violations - speeding, drunk driving, various things like that, and he had never gone to jail. He'd only been fined. So he basically was given slaps on the wrist.

And then one night, when Margaret Mitchell and her husband crossed the street, here he came speeding on the wrong side of the road and hit and killed Margaret Mitchell, and the initial response of the public was horror, but then, interestingly over time, things shifted and there started to be more sympathy for the driver than Margaret Mitchell.

BLOCK: How did that happen? Why did the public sympathy turn, do you think?

LERNER: Well, this is such an instructive case about drunk driving I think in this country. For years and years, back in that era, people who were killed or victimized by a drunk driver were seen as being in the wrong place at the wrong time - that these things happen. And that was very much the case with Margaret Mitchell. After the initial sort of outrage, people started to say, well, it was her time to go. I read so many stories like that and every one was almost more shocking than the next - that we could have had a society that was so passive to a crime that was killing 25,000 people a year for so long.

BLOCK: And how much of a shift has there been since then, do you think?

LERNER: We're down to about 10 or 11,000 alcohol-related deaths a year in crashes, from 25,000. So there's been a lot of progress, and I wouldn't want to minimize that at all. But I saw a recent statistic put out by the CDC that suggested that there are at least 110 million instances of drunk driving in this country still a year.

BLOCK: There are a number of other countries who decided that the threshold for drunk driving should be way lower than it is here in the United States, as low as .02 percent, say, in Norway or Sweden. Is there any political will here do you think to have that threshold be lower, lower than it is right now, .08 percent?

LERNER: I think it really does become a political question at some point. Groups like MADD, if you look at their website now, sure they'd love the blood alcohol level to go down to .05, but it's not really something that they're pushing that aggressively because politically I think it's a non-starter. There are lots of forces in this country that don't want to see the blood alcohol level dropped further for safe driving. So I am thinking about technologies that can help.

Breathalyzers that are installed in cars, they're known as ignition interlocks, that you have to breathe into before your car can start. Many states are using those for people who have multiple DWI convictions, and some states are using them for people with only one. I would be much more in favor of those becoming widespread. And then the next possibility, although this is gonna generate a lot opposition from the Libertarian types, is a technology - an infrared technology that would allow people's blood alcohol levels to be determined once they put their hands on the steering wheel.

And if there was an alcohol level, the car would stop, or would not be able to start. That's something that will be very tough to both fund in this country, and to get across politically, but to my mind, when I want to drive home at night, I don't people driving in my direction that have been drinking.

BLOCK: Have you changed your own patterns of driving and drinking, if you do, after doing this book?

LERNER: Well, I was never much of a drinker, you know, it's nice to have a drink or two at a party, but there's ways you can do it more safely than other ways, and one thing you can do is when you get to the party, and you have a drink or two and then you have dinner, is to stop drinking at that point. And indeed, if you have enough food in your stomach and you're drinking relatively early in the evening, by the time you get in your car, your blood alcohol level is going to be extremely low, and it's gonna be legal.

I think where people run into trouble is they either don't eat or they continue to drink all night and then they decide to get in their car. I think we're never gonna get to a point in this country where people are gonna say, you know what, I'm not gonna drink and drive. I think we need to get people to do so in a manner that is safe and reflects the scientific knowledge about what we know.

And then, of course, the other thing is designated drivers. I mean, the fact is, other countries use designated drivers incredibly enthusiastically, and we still sort of look down on it, and people aren't willing to go to a party and be the designated driver because they think they can't enjoy themselves and that's really a pity.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Dr. Barron Lerner. He's a professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, and his book is titled "One For The Road." Dr. Lerner, thanks so much.

LERNER: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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