In 1979, after a 13-year-old California girl was killed by a drunken driver who had just served jail time for another drinking-and-driving fatality, the girl's mother got mad. She and her friends and family started an organization called "MADD" (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). Over the next 20 years, the group shone a spotlight on the drinking-and-driving issue. In that time, U.S. drunken-driving deaths fell by half, from 30,000 a year to 15,000. But lately, the news is not so good. The death toll on the nation's roads is creeping higher.
Almost 18,000 Americans, drunken drivers and innocent victims alike, died in alcohol-related crashes last year. And as MADD is quick to point out, that does not include those who were maimed, as referred to in one TV spot.
"Hi, I'm Kelly Ripa. You probably know me best as a TV host and actress. But you may not know that my sister was seriously injured in a drunk-driving crash. She is one of about a half-million people who are injured every year because of someone's careless choice to drink and drive..."
The "don't drink and drive" message still gets headlines when celebrities like Glen Campbell get arrested for drunken driving. The country-music star went to jail after he smashed into another car last year and his blood-alcohol level was measured at 2.5 times the legal limit.
So with awareness of the dangers of boozing and cruising so high, why is the death toll rising?
MADD's national president, Wendy Hamilton, whose sister and a nephew were killed by a drunken driver, says MADD is a victim of its own success. Like athletes who may tune out even the best of coaches after awhile, people may no longer be paying attention. "Since its founding in 1980, MADD has passed over 2300 anti-drunk driving laws, underage drinking laws, victim-rights laws. But keeping up the drumbeat has been hard," she says. "These faces that used to be the front-page headlines have now gone to the back-page obituaries."
MADD has tried a new slogan to revive interest: "Get mad all over again." Not mad at drinkers, per se.
"I drink alcohol. It's drinking and driving. That's why we changed our name in 1984 from 'Mothers Against Drunk Drivers' to 'Mothers Against Drunk Driving,'" she adds. Mike Jackson, who founded a MADD chapter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1990 after a 16-year-old girl in his church was killed by a drinking driver, has seen his chapter shrink from 6000 families to 300.
Some people argue that MADD is up against changing standards about risky behavior. Drinking by younger and younger Americans has become cool, even sexy, thanks to slick commercials using younger and younger actors. That's Michael Sands' point of view. He's a Defense Department contractor in California who (before he got sober 10 years ago) was arrested four times, jailed once and lost his driving privileges for three years for driving drunk.
"Kids are starting to drink younger. I have friends, their kids are drinking at 13 years old, driving drunk and driving on marijuana and other substances," he points out. "Alcohol usage is up, and there's so much going on in society now that people aren't paying attention. MADD is embedded in everyone's brain, but people don't listen, because they're anesthetized to their message."
Many of those who have lost loved ones believe the law, and judges who administer it, are too lenient on habitual drunken drivers especially. So does Greensboro prosecutor Howard Neumann. He says people need to stop thinking of crashes caused by drinking drivers as "accidents."
"You can look at a guy who's drunk who gets behind the wheel of a car and starts down a busy road with a guy who stands at the head of that road with a loaded firearm and doesn't really aim at anybody in particular, but just closes his eyes and discharges it," he explains. "He may not hit anybody. But if he did, we would punish him a lot more severely than we would that driver."
Not surprisingly, Greensboro criminal defense attorney Joel Oakley takes a different stance. Sometimes good people do bad things, he says. They can be arrested, even without driving erratically, when their breathalyzer reading barely meets the North Carolina level of .08 percent alcohol in their bloodstream.
"I look at the individual as well as the crime. Over the past few years, MADD mothers have been extremely powerful as lobbyists and people are damned the minute they're charged," he says.
But Mr. Oakley's argument fails to impress family members like Debbie Smith who lost loved ones to drinking drivers. Ten years ago, a trucker who had just quaffed eight beers ran a red light at high speed and mangled a small Toyota, killing its driver, Debbie Smith's 18-year-old daughter, Amy. The driver's sentence: just eighteen DAYS, one day for each year of Amy's life at a work farm.
"They say it takes about five years for a parent to really begin to feel like a person again after the loss of a child, and I guess it took me about six," she says. "I never had the opportunity to see her get married, to graduate, to have children."
There's also an empty spot in Wayne McNeil's heart. His only child, Troy, drank a few beers at a cook-out, hopped into his car, and got within one minute of home when he lost control and smashed into a tree. He was 25 years old.
"The next breath you take, you're never the same again. In an alcohol-related crash, the one who actually dies, sometimes it's a blessing. The family's the one that has to live with it for the rest of their lives and then if someone winds up going to prison, then that family has to live with it," he says.
Mr. McNeil became a public speaker for MADD. He brings along photos of Troy in life and death and pictures of what was left of his automobile.
"The last time we saw our son's body, he was in a body bag. I have a body bag that I pass around," he adds.
Captain Jesse Bowman of the Fairfax County, Virginia, police department says high-visibility sobriety checkpoints make people think twice before drinking and driving.
"If one person goes through the checkpoint or sees it in the opposite lane, generally they'll go tell four people. So the word in your community will really get out: 'Hey, the checkpoints are everywhere, every week. The Fairfax County Police are really serious about this,'" says Captain Bowman.
The police and anti-drunken driving groups must wrestle with the mind-set of Americans who guess they can handle a few drinks and drive, guess the drivers with the boozy breath next to them are "OK to drive," or guess the odds are slim that a drunk will smash into them. Last year, 500,000 Americans guessed wrong.