Drunk driving is a primary cause of highway traffic accidents causing deaths and injuries with enormous monetary costs to society. The drunk driving was first recognized as a policy problem in the literature in 1904, approximately 5 years after the first highway traffic fatality in the United States (Voas and Lacey). In 1982, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration started keeping statistics of alcohol related crashes through its Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) (Stewart and Fell).
In 1982, there were 26,173 alcohol related fatalities, which constituted 60% of all highway fatalities. In 2002, about 17,419 or roughly 41% of about 42,815 highway fatalities were estimated to be alcohol related which indicates a 19% change since 1982 (Stewart and Fell). Overall, alcohol related traffic fatalities have reduced by about 33% over the last two decades. Policies implemented to curb drunk driving in the last two decades seem to have an impact on alcohol related fatalities.
FARS data shows a 62% decrease (1. 64 to . 61) in alcohol related fatality rate since 1982 (Stewart and Fell). The general decline in the alcohol related fatalities for the general population is believed to be due to a combination of deterrent based laws, increased alcohol awareness and decrease in alcohol consumption, increased publicity about prevention, and general car safety measures (Stewart and Fell). Starting 1980s, drunk driving has been conceptualized as a criminal justice issue.
With the effect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and some other citizen activist groups, the issue has become a public policy problem in which drunk drivers are defined as “sinful killers” who drink and drive irresponsibly and claim lives of “innocent” victims. These efforts, according to Ross, created a “dominant paradigm” which focuses on the blameworthy driver. Thus, framing the issue as of a “sin” and drunk drivers as “deviants” has dominated the policymaking process and socially constructed the drunk drivers as a target group with negative connotations in public mind (Meier).
Policymakers responded the demands by legislating stricter deterrent based measures to punish those “criminal” drunk drivers and deter drunk driving to save lives (Ross). Therefore, it is important to examine how drunk driving emerged as a policy problem and how deterrent based laws are introduced and accepted as a solution to the problem. This paper examines also the effects of MADD on legislation of drunk driving laws and effects of those laws on alcohol related fatalities. Background
The struggle against drunk driving as a traffic safety problem began in late 1960s. Before 1960s, the federal government’s influence on states’ drunk driving policies was minimal. The national character and seriousness of traffic safety problems prompted Congress to enact the Highway Safety Act and the Motor Vehicle and Traffic Safety Act, in 1966. In 1967, the Secretary of Transportation officially promulgated the first federal drunk driving standards in the National Uniform Standards for State Highway Safety Programs.
One of the requirements of this program was for each state to utilize chemical tests for determining blood alcohol levels (BAC) and to enact BAC limits of no greater than . 10 % (Evans et al. ). If an individual is found to be driving with a BAC over a certain threshold they would be arrested for drunk driving. Those standards came with the threat of reducing highway funds for noncompliance. Although some states viewed the 1967 standards and the threats of reducing highway funds as interfering with their sovereign function, they complied with the new standards to participate in highway construction projects.
By 1981 all states had adopted the specific standard of . 10 BAC or a lower level. In 1982, the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving was created, and the Alcohol Traffic Safety Act of 1982 established a three-year program to provide highway grants for states that adopted certain anti-drunk driving measures (Evans et al. ). In 1983, the Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving recommended that states enact a uniform drinking age of twenty-one years. This approach was ineffective: only four states had done so by 1984.
In response, Congress passed legislation requiring highway funding reductions for any state with a drinking age under twenty-one in 1984. That strategy was effective as the states soon began to establish twenty-one-year age limits. By 1986, all but eight states had adopted the twenty-one-year age limits. By 1989, all states had complied with this federal limit. Congress, by promising grants or threatening to withhold funding (carrot and stick from of coercive federalism), has taken an active role in formulating drunk driving policies and in encouraging the states to adopt them (Evans et al.
). On October 23, 2000 President Clinton signed Department of Transportation and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2001 that established the first-ever national drunk driving standard at . 08 blood alcohol content (BAC). According to this legislation, states that do not adopt . 08 BAC laws by 2004 would have 2% of highway construction funds withheld, with the penalty increasing to 8% by 2007. States adopting the standard by 2007 would be reimbursed for any lost funds. As of February 2004, 46 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have adopted the national .
08 BAC standard. The federal BAC limit was the last, but not the least measure established to curb drunk driving. It was, indeed, the culmination of efforts targeting drunk driving which dates back to early 1980s (MADD). Although a variety of preventative policies including education campaigns, rehabilitation, and control of alcohol sales have been employed to reduce drunk driving, more emphasis has been placed on the use of punitive policy tools such as license revocation, increased fines, and mandatory jail time.
Policies designed to change undesired behavior frequently frame drunk driving behavior as “sinful” or “deviant”, which suggests that drunk driving may constitute a morality policy. Indeed, drunk drivers are often depicted in the media and policy debates as irresponsible “killer drunks”. The politics around the issue of drunk driving as a morality policy may explain why punitive tools rather than preventive policies have been increasingly used in this policy area (Meier). Anti-Drunk Driving Policy Controversies
Policies pertaining to alcohol have been regulated by local, state and the federal governments over the last century, including the prohibition at the turn of the twentieth century. At different times alcohol has been prohibited, permitted to operate without government control, regulated through licensing, or controlled by monopolies. This policy area is largely controlled by states through a wide range of policies regulating both the sale of alcohol and penalties for alcohol abuse.
Although prohibition on drunk driving is a regulatory policy, it has a separate purpose. As Meier points out, rather than restricting access to alcohol, drunk driving policies are intended to punish individuals who abuse alcohol by drinking and driving (687). Over the last two decades states have adopted a variety of punitive policies to prevent drunk driving and its consequences. Since drunk driving is framed as “sinful” behavior, no one will stand up and support drunk driving.
Advocates of drunk driving policies push for stricter measures to protect “innocent” victims and in such an environment, rational politicians will perceive that the demand for restrictive policies will be greater than it actually is and, thus, compete for more extreme policies because they always see there is a great support for being tougher on “sin” (Meier). These policies will be carried out through strict law enforcement by agencies, which will be awarded by the number of arrests made.
Therefore, law enforcement agencies will also favor more extreme policies because such policies will create an environment that supports more resources for them (Meier). Furthermore, arresting “killer drunks” and saving innocent lives will increase their popularity in the eyes of public. In the absence of organized opposition, therefore, drunk driving policies – shaped with the support of the public, politicians, and the bureaucracy-lead to adoption of coercive tools, which increases the cost of sinful behavior (Ross). As with most public policy issues, this one, too, has many sides.
Just as anti-drunk driving movement supporters form alliances for specific efforts, adversaries also work independently and sometimes together depending on the current situation and how their alliances reflect common concerns. Organizations and individuals who appear to “oppose” the efforts of the anti-drunk driving movement are, in some cases, protecting a different interest or issue, such as business interests and, by extension, the economy (Baum). Despite the strength of the morality policy framework to predict what type of policy tools would be adopted in this policy domain, legislation of the federal .
08 BAC standard departs from this framework on -at least- one major point: there was an organized opposition to the legislation. Opponents of the national . 08 BAC limit consisted of interest groups representing alcohol and hospitality industries and a few non-profit groups defending motorists’ rights. Meier contends that highly salient morality policies permit little role for expertise and the lack of opposition results in avoidance of information that challenges the dominant position. Therefore, morality politics lead to adoption of poorly designed and rarely effective policies.
In the case of . 08 BAC legislation, as with many other anti drunk driving policies, however, existence of such an opposition heated the debate around the effectiveness of that standard to prevent drunk driving. Studies evaluating the effectiveness of . 08 BAC limit and level of impairment at different levels of BAC were often cited by both sides of the policy (Meier 689-90). Opponents of the national . 08 BAC limit, however, differed in their solutions rather than in their conception of the issue.
Both sides of the drunk driving debate agreed on the problem, but they disagreed on the solutions, which is closely related to the definition of the problem. Opponents and proponents of the legislation defined the problems in similar ways. For example, both sides distinguished good people who drink socially from a small minority of alcohol abusers, blameworthy deviants, who drink and drive irresponsibly. The alcohol and restaurant lobbyists could not and did not deny the existence of drunk driving problem. Furthermore, they accepted an obligation to contribute to the reduction of the problem (Baum).
However, they defended that . 08 BAC limit would not affect those abusers but would punish the responsible social drinkers, which in turn negatively would affect alcohol sales. They argued that most fatal accidents involving BAC levels below . 10 were alcohol related, not alcohol caused. In almost all alcohol caused fatal accidents, drivers have had an average BAC level of . 17. Therefore, lowering BAC limit to . 08 would not prevent drunk driving. Instead, some other measures such as strict administrative license suspension, and frequent sobriety checks by law enforcement should be administered.
Proponents of the . 08 BAC legislation, on the other hand, argued that everyone’s safe driving skills are dangerously impaired at this level, and nearly one-fourth of traffic fatalities caused by drunk drivers with a BAC level of . 10 or less (Meier 691-92). Anti-Drunk Driving Movement and MADD According to Reinarman, the anti-drunk driving movement did not spring from a rise in the prevalence of drunk driving or in accidents related to it, but from the fact that the injustices (or negative externalities) attributed to drunk driving have never been treated seriously by legislators and courts.
Indeed, before 1980s drunk driving had been seen merely a traffic offense. The morality policy focus of the Reagan administration created the suitable climate in which the claims of MADD affected the public and legislators (Reinarman). MADD was founded as a non-profit victims’ rights organization concerned with advocating for and counseling victims and bereaved relatives, and monitoring courtrooms. Although many members of MADD are victims or bereaved victims of drunk drivers, general community activists (non-victim) have also been active in many chapters.
A study on a national sample of 125 MADD chapters indicated that victimization alone does not cause activism (Weed). Moreover, victim and non-victim activists share similar social backgrounds and already participate in other voluntary associations, which reveals that MADD tends to be run by activists who have been victimized rather than victims who have become activists (Ross). Despite its inception as a victims’ rights organization, MADD has been blamed for becoming a neo-prohibitionist movement (Hanson).
The goal of the organization, Hanson claims, is no longer preventing alcohol related accidents but preventing drinking. Moreover, MADD members are accused of seeking vengeance through harsh penalties either than rehabilitation and prevention. Reinarman points out that MADD’s goals include the demand for justice or vengeance on the group that took lives of friends and children, which warrants harsh punishment whether deterrence is achieved. He also contends that in the case of drunk driving, the purpose of jail is generally social revenge, not accident prevention.
Advocates of MADD, on the other hand, have always pointed out the public education programs, victim assistance, and legislative activism as their agenda items. Regardless of the objectives mentioned above, MADD has managed to make drunk driving a major public problem. Its approach to the problem assumes that the victim in an alcohol related accident is innocent; the drunk driver’s behavior is willful and it is a crime which should be dealt in the criminal justice system; and harsh punishment is effective in reducing drunk driving by the threat of swift, certain, and severe penalties.
By working against the alcohol industry’s promotion of drinking in general, MADD has focused on the negative externalities created by the drunk driver -framing the issue as a deviant behavior (Ross). This strategy allowed the movement to gain support even from the alcohol industry itself. Starting from being a small group of women to a nationwide organization with over 600 chapters across 50 states, MADD has become the most influential citizen group fighting drunk driving.
The organization’s 2003-2004 annual report shows that its assets reached more than $28 million and revenues more than $53 million (MADD). As with other anti-drunk driving laws, MADD was the main actor behind the federal . 08 BAC legislation. With support of other non-profit organizations, MADD members brought the issue to the public attention. They lobbied key members of Congress, organized media campaigns, participated in press events and other activities, and published fact sheets and statistical information demonstrating the significance of the policy initiative (Ross).
They not only contacted the president and obtained his support, but also reached both Democrat and Republican members of the Congress gaining bipartisan support, necessary for passage of the legislation. MADD saw the fight for . 08 BAC as a fight for public safety. Karolyn Nunnallee, the president of the organization, once said, “The danger imposed by a drunk driver does not stop at State lines. Neither should the standards that define drunk driving” (190). Conclusion Like many other public policy issues, drunk driving can also be defined and addressed in several ways with every definition proposing a different solution.
Contrary to the dominant paradigm, for example, drunk driving can be considered as a public health issue. Then the solution would be rehabilitation of offenders rather than imposing sanctions on them. However, efforts of MADD and other grassroots organizations to define the problem in criminal justice terms by describing the problem as of a “sin” committed by irresponsible “killer drunks” against “innocent” victims succeed over other possible definitions of the problem as well as the solutions attached to them (Meier).
Their success of the definition of the problem yielded social construction of the target group as “deviants” with negative connotations and weak political power who deserve sanctions either than rehabilitation. Although proponents of drunk driving policies have been successful in defining the issue in terms of “sin” that no one could stand for it, opponents were also successful – to some extent – in addressing the issue by questioning the effectiveness of deterrent based policies.
They were able to frame the issue in such a manner that opposition became legitimate. Meier contends that when the opponents are able to change the social construction of the debate from sin to some other dimension, the redistributive nature of the policy becomes open and acknowledged (694). At this point, we can hold that the drunk driving issue was transformed from the politics of sin to the politics of redistribution when alcohol and hospitality industries considered that the stricter laws -as in the case of federal .
08 BAC legislation- would threat alcohol sales. They were not successful, however, in changing issue entirely from being a policy of sin and could not defend drunk driving, but emphasized the potential inefficiency of measures to curb drunk driving. Moreover, they could not sustain holding that position over time and once again the dominant definition of the problem prevailed yielding more punitive tools to deter drunk driving. MADD has been acknowledged as the driving force that transformed drunk driving into a public problem which warrants governmental action.
Moreover, MADD as a citizen advocacy group is an important factor in shaping policies in American states. The results provided evidence for the effects of MADD not only on states’ adoption of anti-drunk driving laws but also adoption of traffic safety measures in general. Works Cited Baum, Scott. “Drink Driving as a Social Problem: Comparing the Attitudes and Knowledge of Drink Driving Offenders and the General Community. ” Accident Analysis and Prevention. 32 (2000): 689-694. Evans, William N. , Doreen Neville, and John D. Graham.
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