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Excerpt: Introduction of "One For The Road" by Barron Lerner

Excerpt: Introduction of "One For The Road" by Barron Lerner

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Published by OnPointRadio
Adapted from "One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900" by Barron H. Lerner. Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Adapted from "One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900" by Barron H. Lerner. Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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Published by: OnPointRadio on May 28, 2013
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introduction
 What’s the Harm?
Readers of the Long Island, New York, section of the June
3
,
1984
,
 New YorkTimes 
had the opportunity to read an opinion piece by Philip B. Linker, an as-sociate professor of English at the local Suffolk County Community College.Linker’s piece, entitled “Drinking and Driving Can Mix,” began with a descrip-tion of how he had driven home legally drunk the previous Saturday night. Hethen continued: “I drove home drunk the Saturday before that, and the onebefore that, in what probably amounts to a fairly consistent pattern over the last 
25
years, ever since I have been licensed to drive.” But, Linker wrote, he hadnever been pulled over or arrested. The same was true for many of his friends.Hence, he concluded, it was possible to drive drunk successfully.
1
 The timing of Linker’s article was no coincidence. For several years, theUnited States had been experiencing a surge of interest in drunk driving and thedamage it caused. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), which dated from
1980
, was the best-known activist group, but Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID),founded two years earlier, was based in New York. The professor admired theefforts of these groups to publicize the issue of drunk driving and get strongerlaws passed, but he was concerned about possible excesses.Linker’s piece touched on a series of issues that would ultimately hinder theanti–drunk driving crusade. For example, that he and his friends seemed able todrive while inebriated suggested that drunk driving might not be such a gravesocietal problem. Linker also emphasized the concept of moderate liquor in-take, comparing his own childhood drinking experiences to what happenedin Europe, where children learned to enjoy alcohol “sensibly and responsibly.”
 
2
 
One for the Road 
 The related notion of “responsible drinking,” which implied moderate intake without harmful repercussions, would consistently be invoked as something that had no relationship to drunk driving and thus was acceptable.
2
Linker’s article also had a libertarian flavor, underscoring another type of objection that would emerge. Some of what MADD, RID, and state legislaturesproposed, he wrote, were “draconian measures which severely encroach uponthe rights and liberty of the vast majority of New Yorkers.” True liberty, in con-trast, “entails the responsibility, in effect, to police ourselves.” Not surprisingly,Linker compared the current efforts to an earlier anti-alcohol movement. “Let us eliminate once and for all,” he declared, “the mystique and the myths about alcohol along with the attitudes that led to such follies as Prohibition and the WCTU (Woman’s Christian Temperance Union).”
3
It is not known how many letters the
Times 
received in response to Linker.It is possible that some were supportive. But the three writers whose letters were printed were highly negative. Twenty-five thousand Americans had died inalcohol-related crashes in
1983
, one writer pointed out, with ninety-seven inSuffolk County alone. For a professor to advocate publicly any degree of drink-ing and driving was especially unfortunate, he added—“a tremendous disserviceto our young.” “What scares me to death,” one of the other correspondents wrote, “is Mr. Linker’s utter sincerity.”
4
 This book, the first history of drunk driving and efforts to control it in theUnited States, chronicles the century-long saga of one of the most controver-sial offenses committed by members of the public.
5
At first glance, drunk drivingis among the clearest of crimes, one in which impaired individuals knowingly place themselves behind the wheel of vehicles that can wreak destruction whenout of control. But, as Linker’s piece reveals, such a viewpoint collides with otherfactors, notably, Americans’ love of alcohol, love of driving, and more abstractly,love of freedom and individual liberties. This book tells the stories of a diverse group of individuals:
doctors and advocates for alcoholics who promoted the sympatheticconcept of “alcoholism” in the years after the repeal of Prohibition;
scientists and policymakers who first conceptualized drunk driving as amajor public health problem that was inexplicably being ignored;
representatives from the alcoholic beverage industry who promoted theidea of responsible drinking while carefully ensuring the continued salesof their product;
 
 Introduction
3
mothers and other victims of drunk driving whose anger at lax punish-ment finally led to pure moral outrage;
academicians who, while opposed to drunk driving, nevertheless chal-lenged some of the statistics that justified the new activism;
libertarian critics who derided organizations like MADD as paternalisticand 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. The old joke goes that the definition of a conservative is a liberal who hasbeen mugged. It might similarly be said that a libertarian is someone who hasnever lost a loved one in a drunk driving crash. The point, of course, is that passionately held beliefs are more likely to be based on emotion than reason. Thus, this history of drunk driving may not alter anyone’s beliefs about thesubject. Those already vehemently opposed to impaired driving will see a story of unnecessary death and missed opportunities. To them, the notion of condon-ing any type of drinking and driving will remain inexplicable. At the same time,other readers will find resonance in the words of Philip Linker. Although they may not applaud his specific behavior, they are apt to sympathize with two very “American” themes that he raised: individual responsibility and rejection of gov-ernmental intrusion into citizens’ lives. As the old basketball expression goes,“No harm, no foul.” Yet even if this book ultimately changes few minds, it pro- vides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate how we have become a society that concurrently condemns and tolerates drunk driving.
Q
Opposition to drunk driving is as old as the automobile. In the early yearsof the twentieth century, state and local legislators in certain areas passed lawsmaking impaired driving illegal. But prohibitions varied greatly. Although pub-licly on the record as opposed to drinking and driving, the automobile andbeverage industries carefully avoided any black-and-white characterization of the problem. The suburbanization of America after World War II, followed by the development of the interstate highway system, helped to transform the au-tomobile—and the act of driving—into a vital cultural and economic activity. The car, the “freedom machine,” became the primary mode of transportationfor those in suburban or rural areas going to work, visiting friends, and most importantly for this book, going to restaurants and bars. It was one thing to

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