Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: How the U.S. demonized drunk driving

September 7, 2011 - 04:30 PM
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Road beer. (Photo: flickr/james cridland)

One emerging transit theme this week has been the danger of bad choices, readily apparent in the videos of a bus driver tossing a person out onto the ground and the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's clip of a pick-up driver intentionally hitting a cyclist. These are terrible incidents in which aggression wins out against drivers' better natures. 

It seems only fitting that in this week's dispatch from transit history, I focus on one of the worst driving choices a person can make — drunk driving.

In 1968, the U.S. government released the Alcohol and Highway Safety Report, which collected and quantified the dangers of drunk driving for the first time ever. One of the report's key architects, William Haddon (president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and former director of the National Highway Safety Bureau) described how the U.S. Department of Transportation put the drunk driving report together and emphasized the facts of the drunk driving danger in a May 1969 issue of Popular Science. Haddon emphasizes what were then 56,000 annual highway deaths that resulted from drunk driving as well as its role in about 800,000 "run-of-the-mill" crashes. He details the demographics of drunk drivers, explaining how many weren't "skid-row bums" yet do include "social drinkers" and teenagers. Coffee and tea, the transit official assures us, are no antidote for a few drinks.

Haddon's report was one of the first major steps in educating the public about intoxicated driving, and subsequent PSAs and other health and safety initiatives worked to reduce the behavior. In the late '60s, many U.S. states had set its drunk driving blood alcohol limits at 0.15 percent "as a result of recommendations made in the [19]30s," Haddon wrote. Today states outlaw driving when the limit is much lower, typically above 0.08. Drunk driving arrests reached a peak of 1.9 million in 1983 but continued to fall by about 7,000 arrests a year in the decades since through the late '90s. Anti-drunk driving communications efforts all had a strong and positive effect on driver behavior, and by 1996, local U.S. police arrests were down to 1.47 million arrests, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A part of that decline was attributed to many states raising the drinking age limit to 21 years. The campaign against drunk driving took many forms over the years. In 1985, Stevie Wonder actually performed his anthem "Don't Drive Drunk" at the Kennedy Center here in D.C. as part of an event funded by Chrysler, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the Ad Council. Even though drunk driving remains a problem, we've come along way to change societal behaviors and dispel myths of drunk driving, much of which emanated from the work of Haddon and other officials working in the '60s.

Read Haddon's full 1969 account on drunk driving and the report he helped create here in Popular Science:

Read more pieces of Metro history here.

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