We Sold Our Souls to Drunk Driving
When it comes to killing with cars, anything goes as long as you’re sober
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In August, Madison Jane Lyden, a 23-year-old tourist visiting the U.S. from Australia, was cycling along Central Park West. At around West 67th Street, a car-service driver pulled into her bike lane, forcing her into traffic. The driver of a private sanitation truck then struck and killed her.
Felipe Chairez, the driver of the truck, was charged with driving while intoxicated. (Police found three empty beer cans in the truck, though his attorney claims the alcohol was neutralized by a chicken sandwich.) However, the driver of the car service was charged with nothing, even though it was his action that put Madison Jane Lyden in harm’s way in the first place.
I'm not surprised that 50 percent of the team responsible for Madison Jane Lyden’s death will walk. The truth is that it’s very difficult to get in any serious trouble for hurting or killing someone with your car—unless, of course, you’ve been drinking. This is because drunk driving is pretty much our only motor-vehicular taboo. Menacing other road users in a grossly overpowered vehicle? No biggie. In fact, menacing behavior is so acceptable that we use it to sell cars. As long as booze isn’t involved, potentially fatal recklessness is basically just a form of self-expression.
DWI’s rarefied status as our one and only driving no-no is in no small part due to the efforts of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the grassroots advocacy group started by Candace Lightner in 1980 after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver. In the ensuing years, that group's efforts have resulted in numerous laws designed to discourage drunk driving, including the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Even more significantly, they’ve influenced social norms by reframing drunken driving crashes as acts of criminal negligence as opposed to mere “accidents.” The effect of this has been profound, and overall drunk driving deaths have declined by 50 percent since the organization was founded.
The fact that we now take drinking and driving seriously is obviously a good thing, and nobody’s suggesting we should be more tolerant of it or repeal laws against it. (Well, almost nobody.) At the same time, the very seriousness with which we take DWI can be frustrating sometimes, inasmuch as it underscores how little we seem to give a shit about the full suite of irresponsible motorist behavior. Hence, Madison Jane Lyden’s killer gets the book thrown at him, while the driver who initiated the sequence of events that culminated in her death doesn’t even have so much as a pamphlet waggled at him admonishingly.
Legally speaking in most jurisdictions, you’re way better off killing a cyclist or a pedestrian while sober than you are getting caught behind the wheel after you’ve had a tipple, even if you haven’t hurt anybody.
In a country that cherishes the mutually exclusive values of freedom and car dependence as much as America does, it’s pretty remarkable that we've agreed to legislate and demonize drunk driving to the extent that we have. So how did MADD pull it off? The tempting answer is that MADD was a reaction to tragedies involving children, and that we’ll do anything to keep our kids safe—but the reality is we’re quite adept at ignoring that sort of thing when it suits us.
No, the real reason we’re willing to be so tough on DWI is that it represents an attractive bargain: by investing all our efforts in fighting this one infraction, the rest of us get to feel good about ourselves no matter how irresponsible we are. Better still, we’re allowed to be irresponsible. Legally speaking in most jurisdictions, you’re way better off killing a cyclist or a pedestrian while sober than you are getting caught behind the wheel after you’ve had a tipple, even if you haven’t hurt anybody. It may not make much ethical sense, but it’s mindlessly simple in the way orders from a parent who can’t be bothered are simple: “I don’t care what the hell you do, just leave the goddamn booze alone!” Sure, whatever you say, I’ll just go back to lighting fires in the backyard.Not only that, but by focussing so relentlessly on DWI we make it much easier to blame the victim—and Americans love blaming the victim. See, the way we figure it is, once you rule out alcohol it naturally follows that whatever happened is the fault of the person to which it happened. Driver was sober? Driver stuck around? Oh well, the cyclist must have “veered” or “come out of nowhere” or pulled off one of those other Siegfried and Roy-worthy illusions that drivers are always attributing to cyclists. Come to think of it, what was the cyclist even doing on the road in the first place? Probably had it coming—especially if the cyclist wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Despite our acquired contempt for DWI, motor vehicle deaths in America remain quite robust at around 40,000 per year. What we should be doing is building on what MADD accomplished by working to change the social norms around other forms of reckless driving. Instead, we’re trying to graft the MADD approach onto pedestrians by trying to make “drunk walking” a thing. (Looking for something to blame for increasing pedestrian deaths? Blame giant SUVs.)
In the 1970s, children in the Netherlands were dying as the country became overrun with automobiles. This led to protests and a movement called Stop de Kindermoord, or Stop the Child Murder. Cities took back their streets and now Dutch kids are the happiest in the world.
Taking on drinking and driving was a good start. Now let’s work on murdering and driving. It may seem like a hard bargain, but it’ll pay off in the long run.