As the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) I can attest that there is a new kind of madness on the roads. And new approaches are needed to save lives.
Unfortunately, the necessary debate on how to solve these new challenges isn't happening in earnest. The traffic safety community is distracted by an issue that will do little to save lives: lowering the drunk driving arrest threshold from .08 to .05.
And they're distracting the public as well.
Back in the early years at MADD we focused on getting serious drunk drivers off the road. Believe it or not, back then someone who was pulled over for drunk driving might be sent on their way by an officer with little more than a casual "get home safe." As a result many lives were unnecessarily lost, including my daughter's. In the more than 35 years since MADD's founding, we have fought drunk driving ferociously and saved countless lives in the process.
But today, the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction — with government agencies pushing states to arrest people for having little to drink before driving instead of pursuing strategies to tackle serious distraction and impairment. Anyone who works in traffic safety knows that most highway deaths are not caused by drivers with low blood alcohol content levels, but are the result of drivers with substance abuse disorders. Focusing finite resources on casual drinkers instead of drug and alcohol abusers is a miscalculation with deadly consequences.
Every dollar spent enforcing DUI laws against sober drivers is one not spent on getting the worst offenders off our roads. The effort that the Utah legislature is putting toward lowering the drunk driving arrest threshold — a "solution" without any real evidence to support its efficacy — would be better spent on meaningful solutions, like ensuring that serious drunks are installing ignition interlocks in their cars. According to a new report from the Traffic Injury Research Foundation using government data, Utah has the second lowest ignition interlock compliance rate in the country. If the Utah Legislature focused on ensuring that more drunk drivers in the state were installing these devices as mandated, then Utah might really make some progress in its fight to make the roads safer.
I'm pleased that the organization I founded isn't one of the groups pursuing the new lower alcohol limit strategy. But that hasn't stopped states like Utah from passing legislation to arrest drivers who are at .05.
This has kicked off a national conversation about whether or not it makes sense to put someone in jail for not much more than a single drink (it doesn't). If we are getting into that level of impairment then we should logically be jailing people for cell phone use while driving. The debate needs to focus on how we're going to manage this new world of endlessly distracting gadgets and the legalization of marijuana. Nine states have legalized marijuana for recreational use and we don't have an agreed upon set of standards for how to gauge impairment or a reliable method for roadside testing for drugs in a person's system as we do with breathalyzers and alcohol. Developing these methods and creating more public awareness around drugged driving should be a top priority for our traffic safety officials.
I'm not suggesting that we lose our focus or commitment to fighting drunk driving. But we should be clear-eyed about the nature of today's problems.
Since 1980, when MADD was founded, drunk driving deaths have plummeted by more than 50 percent. The key to our success was public education. But it's a lot harder to get people's attention today than it was back then, which is all the more reason we shouldn't squander it on issues that don't maximize public safety impact.
The conversation on .05 is a distraction. And people are already distracted enough.
Candace Lightner is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well as founder and president of We Save Lives.