Harman Singh Gahir
August 09 2010
On the night of May 14, 1988, Larry Mahoney was drunk, so drunk that his blood-alcohol concentration—the percentage of alcohol in his blood—was more than twice Kentucky’s legal limit at the time of .10 percent. Regardless, Mahoney got behind the wheel of his pickup truck and proceeded to drive northbound in the southbound lane of Interstate 71 near Carrollton, Kentucky, crashing head-on into a church bus returning from an amusement park. The collision ruptured the bus’s gas tank, causing a fire that killed twenty-three children and four adults and injured a dozen others, mostly as a result of smoke inhalation. Mahoney had no recollection that he had caused the deaths of twenty-seven people until he woke up in a hospital bed the following morning with minor injuries. He was subsequently convicted of assault, manslaughter, wanton endangerment, and drunken driving and was sent to the Kentucky State Reformatory, where he served a nine-and-a-half-year sentence.
Many observers believe Mahoney deserved a more severe sentence for his crime. This fact is a testament to how much the public’s attitude toward drunk driving has changed since the late 1970s, when it was not perceived as criminal behavior. This sea change in public perception was what Candy Lightner set out to accomplish when she founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in 1980. Lightner’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Cari, was killed by a drunk hit-and-run driver as she walked down a suburban street in California. The driver, who had been convicted four times of driving while intoxicated (DWI) prior to taking Cari’s life, received a two-year prison sentence, but was permitted to serve time in a work camp and a halfway house. Outraged by the leniency of the sentence, Lightner focused MADD on raising public awareness of drinking and driving as a serious crime and advocated tough legislation to deter and apprehend drunk drivers.
Beginning in the early 1980s, the lobbying efforts of MADD began to have a significant influence on federal and state policy to combat drunk driving. Based on statistics showing that sixteen- to twenty-year-olds, although only 10 percent of the nation’s licensed drivers, were involved in 20 percent of all fatal alcohol-related crashes, then-president Ronald Reagan signed into law the National Minimum Drinking Age Act on July 17, 1984. The law mandated that states raise their minimum drinking age to twenty-one or lose federal highway funds. By the mid-1990s, all fifty states had complied. States also instituted tougher penalties for drunk drivers, such as mandatory jail terms for first-time offenders and on-the-spot driver’s license suspensions for those failing or refusing to take a breath test. Data from the Department of Transportation show overall alcoholrelated fatalities declining 36 percent between 1982 and 1997.
In the 1990s, prevention advocates focused on changing federal law to lower the level at which drivers are presumed to be legally intoxicated based on their blood-alcohol concentration (BAC). Primarily determined by breath tests administered by police officers during traffic stops, BACs indicate the level of impairment drivers may be experiencing due to the percentage of alcohol in their blood. Until the late 1990s, most states enforced a .10 percent BAC. To reach this level of intoxication, the average 170-pound man would have to consume slightly more than five twelveounce beers in an hour. That same man would reach the lower .08 percent BAC limit favored by prevention advocates after consuming four twelve-ounce beers in an hour. On October 23, 2000, then-president Bill Clinton signed into law a national .08 BAC standard as part of the Transportation Appropriations Bill. States that do not lower their BAC limit to .08 by 2004 will lose 2 percent of their federal highway money. As of summer 2001, twenty-six states had set their...