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.

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