James G. Wigmore, Forensic Toxicologist, Speaker, Author

Nothing brings the tragedy of drunk driving into closer perspective than the anniversary of the Exxon Valdez. However, a recently published book is doing a great job of showing us how much we have progressed with the legal and societal views of drunk driving.

Barron H. Lerner, “One for the Road, Drunk Driving Since 1900”, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 218 pp, 2011

This book is a well-written concise, social and legal history of drunk driving in the United States since 1900.  The chapter titles provide a succinct overview of the book:

INTRODUCTION:     What’s the Harm?

CHAPTER 1:             The Discovery of Drunk Driving

CHAPTER 2:             Science and Government Enter the Fray

CHAPTER 3:             The MAAD Mothers Take Charge

CHAPTER 4:             The Movement Matures and Splinters

CHAPTER 5:             Lawyers, Libertarians and the Liquor Lobby Fight Back

CHAPTER 6:             More (and More) Tragedies

As Lerner describes this fascinating history;

            “This book tells the stories of a diverse group of individuals:

Doctors and advocates for alcoholics who promoted the sympathetic concept of alcoholism in the years after the repeal of Prohibition;

Scientists and policymakers who first conceptualized drunk driving as a major public health problem that was inexplicaably ignored

Representatives from the alcoholic beverage industry who promoted the idea of responsible drinking, while carefully ensuring the continued sales of their product;

Mothers and other victims of drunk driving whose anger at lax punishment finally led to pure moral outrage;

Academics who, while opposed to drunk driving, nevertheless challenged some of the statistics that justified the new activism.

Libertarian critics who derided organizations like MADD as paternalistic and neoprohibitionist; and

The drunk drivers themselves who ranged from star athletes to factory workers to housewives, all of whom had knowingly chosen to commit an act that was both illegal and morally dubious.”

Throughout his book there are brief appearances of names that should be familiar with forensic alcohol toxicologists such as Bob Borkenstein, Leonard Goldberg, Leon A. Greenberg, Herman A. Heise, Rola N. Harger, Robert L. Donigan, Kurt M. Dubowski, Robert B. Forney Sr., James C. Fell, Ralph W. Hingson, Richard L. Holcomb, Clarence W. Muehlberger, H. Lawrence Ross, William Haddon Jr., and Alexander C. Wagenaar, among others.

Golden Age of Drunk Driving

He also describes a period of time before the 1980s, which seem entirely foreign to us now, as “The Golden Age of Drunk Driving”.  In this period of time, society was apparently tolerant of drunk drivers and the penalties were usually just small fines with no loss of driver’s license.  Whatever laws were enacted at the time, were rarely enforced and many drunk drivers were driven home without any repercussions, and perhaps providing a “humorous story”.

The most famous victim in this time period was Margaret Mitchell, the author of “Gone with the Wind” who was hit by a drunk driver on August 11th 1949 while out walking with her husband. The car was travelling at 50 mph in a 25 mph zone. She died 5 days later. The driver had 22 previous traffic offences including 5 for reckless driving and only had to pay a small fine each time without any loss of license.  This time he was sentenced to 10 months and 20 days in jail for Mitchell’s death, but again no loss of license. Typical for that time, the driver felt no shame or guilt and treated the running-over of Mitchell as unfortunate, accidental and a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The lenient attitude to drunk drivers in the US and Canada continued throughout the 1970s.  Lerner documents case after tragic case of light or no sentences for the drunk driver.  In one case, a 17 year old boy on a bicycle was killed by a driver with a BAC of 0.200 g/100mL.  The driver pled guilty but was given only probation.  The judge’s reasoning, which was common at the time, was that it was an accident and not intentional and we can’t bring the victim back and that the defendant has suffered enough already and was “real sorry”.

Finally in the chapter “The MADD Mothers Take Charge”, Lerner describes the successful campaigns of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and other advocacy groups which lead to numerous countermeasures including the .08 law.  The Golden Age was over, or at least tarnished by MADD, and the changing attitude of the public toward traffic safety was underway.

In my forensic career of 38 years, I have seen similar changes in Ontario as described in the book.  In the late 1970s, juries would tend to acquit a drunk driver on the basis that “there but for the grace of God go I”.  Now, they seem to usually convict.  In my last 5 criminal jury trials on impaired driving causing death or injury due to alcohol, all were convicted.  It is almost certain that if a jury hears someone was injured or killed in a motor vehicle collision and there is alcohol involved, there will be a conviction.

I would highly recommend this well-written and organized book for as the old saying goes…

“Those Who Forget History Are Doomed to Repeat It”.

25th Anniversary of Exxon Valdez

As I started this blog, yesterday represents the 25th anniversary of one of the greatest ecological disasters that ever occurred – the Exxon Valdez. Carrying 1.3 million barrels of crude oil, the Exxon Valdez grounded on Bligh reef in Prince William Sound Alaska in the early hours of March 24th 1989.  An estimated 11 million gallons eventually leaked out devastating the pristine environment.  Approximately 1,300 miles of Alaskan coastline were affected and resulted in the death of:

  • 250,000 sea birds

  • 2,800 sea otters

  • 300 harbor seals

  • 250 bald eagles

  • 22 killer whales

As it is estimated that only 10% of the oil was recovered, the effects of the oil that remains trapped in the sandy soil continues to have adverse effects on wildlife (Source:  Brian Lavery, “The Conquest of the Ocean. The Illustrated History of Seafaring”, DK Books, 2013).  This disaster illustrates, in part, the continued importance of workplace testing and screening for alcohol, as the master of the ship had a BAC of over 0.160 g/100mL at the time of the collision.

For more details of this maritime disaster see my blog “Alcohol and Oil: The EXXON VALDEZ”, posted on August 21st, 2012.