What If the Best Way to End Drunk Driving Is to End Driving?

Tough DUI laws can only go so far if we don't give people—especially young people—reasonable alternatives in the first place. 

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PHOENIX—The way my life is currently organized, the odds that I will ever commit the crime of driving while under the influence of alcohol are about as close to zero as you can get.

I live in Washington, D.C., where alternative transportation options are plentiful (there's the Metrorail system, good public buses, taxis you can hail on the street, not to mention Uber, Lyft, or just plain old walking). I also don't own my own vehicle, and when I do end up using a car-share service like car2go or Zipcar, it's almost always for a quick daytime errand, not an evening out that involves drinking. So virtually the only time I ever have to confront the concept of moderating my alcohol intake because I'm going to have to drive is when I'm out of town, in a city that doesn't have great transportation options, and therefore in possession of a rental car. 

This came up relatively recently. Back in February, my partner and I took a short vacation to my hometown, Tucson, Arizona. It was Valentine's Day weekend, and as it turned out, he was planning to propose while we were there, so we had a number of reasons to celebrate with booze. I knew we were going to need a rental car to get around the city easily, so we'd picked one up at the airport, but it quickly started to feel like a burden. How could we head downtown for a glass of champagne (OK let's be honest, at least two glasses followed by some cocktails) and get back safely to our hotel? How much do taxis even cost in Tucson these days? Will one show up if we call?

Luckily, we discovered that UberX had launched in Tucson just a few months before we'd arrived. Since we were familiar with the D.C. version of the service, it was easy to open up the app on our phones, calculate the fare to our destination, and see exactly how many drivers were available in the downtown area. The choice to use UberX and leave our rental car at the hotel that night was a no-brainer. 

These sorts of literal life-and-death decisions about drinking and driving were not always so clear-cut for me. I not only grew up in Arizona, but I lived in Los Angeles for five years before moving to D.C. Starting in 1996, when I first got my driver's license, I drove pretty much everywhere up until 2007, when I sold my aging, increasingly busted 1997 Kia Sephia upon finally realizing I didn't need it to live in D.C. But before 2007, I will confess there were times I risked driving home buzzed. Maybe I was even over-the-legal-limit drunk at times, but just dumb-lucky enough never to have been pulled over. 

All that changed when I moved to a city in which there is basically no excuse ever to drink and drive. My whole concept of what's acceptable in terms of risking a DUI (or, worse still, injuring or killing someone else) has been altered as a result. Over these past six car-free years, I've developed a zero-tolerance policy on drinking and driving for myself, and that in turn has colored my perspective on the kinds of cities I'd ever be willing to live in. There are tons of great reasons to choose walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods and cities over places where driving is more or less required—the environmental impact, the cost, the nightmare of traffic jams—but for me, the number one reason is that I like being able to have a few drinks and never having to worry about driving. 

And I don't think I'm alone. 

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Candy Lightner in 1981. (Associated Press)

Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, in 1980, not long after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk-driving offender. Before MADD, policy-based efforts to curb drunk driving in the United States were virtually nonexistent. DUI bills had been introduced in a handful of state legislatures, but all of them failed. Lightner and the heartbroken fellow parents she recruited changed all that.

On October 1, 1980, Lightner and Cindy Lamb, whose 5-month-old daughter had become the nation's youngest paraplegic as the result of a drunk driving crash, held a riveting press conference on Capitol Hill that sparked one of the biggest societal changes in American history. Preventing drunk driving became, for the first time ever, a major national cause. 

MADD's achievements in the intervening 34 years are undeniable. They were the driving force behind raising the legal drinking age in the U.S. to 21. They fought for two decades to establish a nationwide .08 blood-alcohol content limit, and won. NBC even aired a made-for-TV movie about the organization in 1983.  

The proof of these milestones is in the numbers. Since MADD was founded, the total number of annual drunk driving-related deaths in the United States has been cut in half, and that's over a period of time that saw the nation's population increase by more than 86 million. 

As a child of the 1980s, I can't recall a time when MADD wasn't omnipresent. I can still picture the scary anti-drunk driving poster that hung in my high school's counseling office, with the smashed-up car and the injured couple in prom-wear. Countless DUI PSAs like that one didn't prevent me from ever driving after a couple of drinks, but I suspect they did help shape how seriously I take drinking and driving as a concept. It's not unlike how I basically feel naked and uncomfortable if I ride in a car without my seat belt on, but my sister, who's nine years older, doesn't always wear hers. The difference in our birth years (I was born in 1979, she in 1970) is just about where the generational divide lies on compulsory seat belt usage in this country, and I suspect most Americans born in the late 1970s or later feel similarly indoctrinated into the idea that drinking and driving is fundamentally wrong. 

This is where I have to admit that there aren't many statistics I can cite to back up this feeling of mine. There has never been a public opinion poll to find out whether attitudes about drunk driving vary substantially by generation, nor whether increasingly tough DUI laws have helped create an effective stigma—for any generation—against driving under the influence. 

What I do know is 21- to 24-year-olds remain the age group with the highest percentage of drivers—32 percent—involved in fatal crashes with BAC levels of .08 or higher. I also know that same age group is involved in far fewer fatal drunk driving crashes—down by about 29 percent—than they were just 12 years ago

We also know that younger Americans—especially Millennials—are driving less overall than previous generations. Overwhelmingly, Millennials claim to prefer living in walkable neighborhoods, in cities with high-quality transportation options, and being able to live in the kind of place that doesn't always require driving a car. 

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Arizona is actually a great place to start when talking about drunk driving policy. The state has some of the toughest DUI laws in the country. Law enforcement officers in Arizona are allowed to cite any driver who's impaired to the slightest degree, regardless of whether their BAC is above, at, or below .08. In 2007, Ignition Interlock Devices, those in-car breathalyzers that prevent cars from starting unless the driver blows non-alcoholic breath into a tube, became mandatory as a penalty for all offenders in the state. Since that year, the number of drunk driving deaths in Arizona has dropped 46 percent, according to MADD. 

Valley Metro's light-rail map. The system is planned to expand farther east into Mesa in early 2016. (Valley Metro)

In the Phoenix metro area, that drop in drunk-driving fatalities coincided with the debut of the state's first major light-rail system. The Valley Metro light rail, which cuts an L-shape across the Valley and connects Downtown Phoenix to Sky Harbor International Airport and the main campus of Arizona State University, in Tempe, debuted in 2008. About a year and a half after that, it began offering service past 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights. 

On a recent Friday night in May, I rode the light rail line back and forth between Tempe's Mill Avenue and Downtown Phoenix, for about four hours. Maria Charles, 30, who grew up in Tempe, was on her way to a MarchFourth Marching Band concert with a friend that night.

"I typically take light rail into Phoenix because I plan on drinking," she explained matter-of-factly. And what did she do before there was light rail? "Didn't go to Phoenix."

By about 1:30 a.m., drunk people were certainly abundant on Phoenix's light rail. I was even treated to one young woman's unfortunate vomiting episode on the platform at the Mill Avenue station, which is adjacent to ASU's main drag of over-the-top college bars. Valley Metro spokesperson Susan Tierney says late-night weekend service is by no means peak travel time on the system, but that the transit agency does see big ridership surges during major entertainment events that tend to include alcohol, like concerts or Diamondbacks games. 

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Jan Withers is the current national president of MADD. Like all MADD leaders before her, she joined the organization after losing a family member to a drunk driving crash—in her case, her 15-year-old daughter, Alisa Joy. 

Speak to Withers for more than five minutes about the current scope and mission of her organization, and it's impossible to miss her passion and resolve. She's also quick to acknowledge that the nationwide reduction in drunk driving fatalities spurred by MADD has leveled off for periods of time before, and is in danger of leveling off again.

Signs on freeways in Arizona remind drivers of the state's tough DUI laws. (Sommer Mathis)

"MADD went back to the drawing board," she explains. "We have a three-pronged approach now, all based on data."

Those three prongs are:

  • Support high-visibility law enforcement efforts, things like sobriety checkpoints and signs.
  • Push for mandatory Ignition Interlock Devices for all offenders everywhere, much like Arizona's law already dictates. 
  • Support the development of advanced in-vehicle alcohol detection technology as available option* for all new cars. 

More recently, MADD has also embraced autonomous vehicle technology as a potentially powerful tool in the fight against drunk driving. 

But nowhere in MADD's three-pronged "Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving" agenda is any mention of encouraging alternative transportation options like mass transit or ride-hailing apps*. There is no MADD fund to build more sidewalks or promote land-use patterns and zoning reforms that would allow for the expansion of walkable neighborhoods in Sunbelt metros like Phoenix. (*UPDATE: I've adjusted this paragraph since it was first published to clarify that buried deep in MADD's position statements, though not in its top-line, three-pronged "Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving" agenda, is a single mention of being generally in favor of people choosing to use public transportation as an alternative to drinking and driving. The reference is listed under the header "Safe Ride Programs," i.e. sober ride programs that taxi companies often run on major holidays like New Year's Eve. I'll also add that when I specifically asked Withers whether public transportation or other alternatives were a part of MADD's "Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving," she said that they were not because MADD's current focus is on evidence-based solutions and she had seen no hard evidence that alternative transportation options could have a significant effect on drunk driving.)

It's not that Withers herself is against any of these ideas. Her son and his wife, she'll tell you, chose to live in their Northern Virginia neighborhood so they could have better access to Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail system. But MADD's worldview is decidedly, and not unreasonably, more cynical than that. "What we really know is that people will never stop thinking that it's OK for them to drive that way," says Withers. "Our approach has changed a bit over the years. It used to be 'get tough, have tougher laws.' But what we've learned is, that doesn't work. Fifty to 70 percent of people still drive when their license is revoked."

Instead of seeing a statistic like that as a sign that something might be fundamentally flawed in the transportation options most Americans have available to them, MADD interprets the existence of so many repeat offenders as a mass-scale character flaw—in other words, there will always be people, and lots of them, who are incapable of making a different choice. 

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In David King's Transportation and Land Use Planning graduate course at Columbia University, students are likely to be treated to a mini-rant about Uber. Professor King finds himself irritated, to be sure, at the attitude of so-called transportation network companies that violate what he feels is a social obligation to manage their supply of drivers. That's why people have been so outraged by Uber's surge-pricing model, King says, because almost as soon as the service launched, customers began relying on it as a way to get home safely after a night of drinking. When suddenly the ride home costs three or four times what it usually does, what's a drunk person supposed to do?

But far more irritating to King is the disconnect he sees between transportation planning goals and providing alternatives to drunk driving. 

"When you think about the act of drunk driving, nobody wants to do it," says King. "If you were to give people a reasonable option, they would take it. But we leave it up to these private entrepreneurs. These are the types of things we should be looking at in terms of public policy." 

Neither King nor I can think of a single U.S. mass transit expansion project that came alongside a stated goal of reducing drunk driving. Politicians and policymakers all over the country have been hard at work in recent years convincing voters that investing in systems like light rail and bus rapid transit will reduce congestion, improve air quality, and spur economic development. But nowhere has anyone been making the case that giving people more and better options not to drive is a massive public safety issue. 

Take Boston, for example. In one of America's oldest cities, stuffed to the gills with thirsty college students, the MBTA only introduced late-night weekend service on the 'T' a couple of months ago. But the expanded service, part of a one-year pilot program, is not being billed not as a public safety initiative. Instead, as the Boston Globe reports, the 'T' will be monitoring whether the new hours "increase sales at local businesses, encourage restaurants close to T stations to stay open later, and make Boston’s convention centers more competitive in bringing high-profile events to the city." That's not to say economic goals can't be put right alongside safety ones, of course, but saving lives has not, as yet, appeared to have entered the conversation. 

For start-ups like Uber, even without the pushback against their pricing models, it's even worse. City governments from Seattle to Dallas have clamped down on the service in the face of opposition from traditional taxi companies, and in so doing have limited one more option their residents could have to avoid drunk driving. 

Uber and its competitors have been derided as catering to the rich, but in reality, they're catering to the young—people who are both glued to their smartphones and would generally prefer not to get behind the wheel themselves in the first place if they have a better option. If cities like Dallas or Phoenix or Boston have ever dreamed of becoming the kinds of communities where this new generation—the MADD generation—has enough options to abandon drunk driving once and for all, now is the time. 

*CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify that MADD's focus on developing in-vehicle alcohol detection technology is as an available option on all new vehicles, not a requirement. In addition, a line has been removed that suggested MADD lobbied the National Transportation Safety Board to recommend reducing the nationwide BAC level to .05. While the NTSB did make such a recommendation in 2013, MADD has no official position on reducing the BAC limit to .05. 

Top image: Vitaly Maksimchuk / Shutterstock.com

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

About the Author

  • Sommer Mathis is editor of CityLab. Previously she spent five years editing and reporting on the D.C. metro area at DCist.com and TBD.com.