Is the U.S. too Lenient on Drunk Driving?

December 5th, 2011 by Andrea Bennett

Barron Lerner, author of ‘One for the Road’ weighs in

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

While writing his new book, “One for the Road,” author Barron Lerner went to great lengths to understand what exactly it means to drive under the influence in America. In an interview with NPR, the Columbia University professor of medicine and public health explained how, during a particularly experimental moment, he sat at home with a shot glass and a bottle of vodka to test the limits of the legal limit: .08 blood alcohol level.  

“I was trying to figure out just how drunk you had to be in order to not drive safely,” Lerner said. After five shots of vodka, Lerner said his blood alcohol level was .08. “Of course, .08 would be illegal, but .075 would be fine, so the point was made,” Lerner said in the interview. “One can drink an awful lot and be pretty buzzed and still legally drive in the United States.”

Lerner’s new book discusses the United States’ comparative leniency toward drunk driving – especially in contrast to other countries where legal limits are significantly lower, such as Sweden and Norway, where the limit is .02.

In the decades directly after the repeal of Prohibition, when the legal limit was .15 – twice that of today’s limit – the public often sided with drunk drivers rather than the victims of drunk driving. Lerner was shocked to encounter America’s passivity toward a crime that was killing 25,000 people per year at the time (the modern day statistic is about 10,000 a year).

Lerner cited the example of Margaret Mitchell, 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 were initially horrified, but ultimately sympathized with the driver, despite his 22 previous arrests for driving violations, including speeding and drunk driving.

“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,” Lerner said. “After the initial outrage, people started to say, 'Well, it was her time to go.'”

In a book review by the The New York Times, Dr. Abigail Zuger writes that Dr. Lerner’s account of the relationship between the car and the cocktail in this country is surprising. “Who would imagine, for instance, that as late as 1984, the Times could publish an essay title ‘Drinking and Driving Can Mix,’ supporting ‘sensible’ drinkers who choose to drive,” she writes.

So how do we crack down on drunk driving in this country? Lerner believes technology could play a role. He supports “ignition interlocks,” breathalyzers that drivers use to prove their sobriety before their ignitions will start. Some states are already using the technology for people who have DUI convictions. Another anti-drunk driving gadget uses infrared technology to read blood-alcohol levels via the driver’s hands on the wheel. If it's too high, the ignition won’t start or the car will encourage the driver to pull over.

Where do you fall on the debate over drunk driving in the United States? Are our laws and standards strict enough? Too strict? If we do need to crack down, are these new technologies the way to do it? Sound off here.