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Grassroots Activist Turns Personal Tragedy into National Movement

Candice Lightner says grieving is the beginning, middle and rest of her life. "My daughter Carrie was 13 and she was killed by a multiple repeat offender, (a) hit and run drunk driver. And that started the whole movement. I was so angry."

That anger motivated the 34-year-old divorced mother of three to take a stand. She quit her job as a real estate agent and immersed herself into organizing a fight to save lives. In 1980, the year Carrie was killed by a drunk driver, 27,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes. Lightner called her new group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, also known by its acronym, MADD.

"Our strategy basically was to deal with the issue on the local, state and national level," she says. "On the local level we would ask city councils to implement task forces in order to deal with the problem on the local level. At the state level we would look at legislation and we would look at state-governor-appointed task forces to deal with it at the state level. And at the national level, of course, we looked at it in terms of the Presidential task force."

Within two years, a presidential commission addressed the problem and recommended that the drinking age be raised to 21. By 1987 all states had complied.

Lightner also fought to criminalize driving drunk. "My belief was [that] we needed to have judges and law enforcement and everybody else say that this behavior is not acceptable. It is not tolerable. We are going to do something about it. Then maybe the public would pick up on the fact that this is a crime and it is a serious crime."

MADD lobbied for tougher laws and harsher penalties and got them. For the five years between 1980 and 1985 that Lightner ran the organization, 500 new laws were passed across the country to address the drunk-driving issue. "I learned that you really can make a difference, that you really can change attitudes, you can change laws, you can become involved and immersed in something and have a positive impact."

In the 25 years since MADD was founded, alcohol traffic fatalities in the United States have been cut by 40 percent. The organization, now with 600 chapters across the country, estimates that over the past quarter century, it has saved more than 300,000 lives.

When Lightner left MADD, she worked with struggling non-profits and picked up the pieces of her home life. "I get calls all the time from people who want to start a movement, who have had some tragedy that happened to them or a friend or whatever, and there are a number of groups… that exist that I helped in the beginning and that I was happy to do. And, I always tell them: 'It is really important that while you are doing this you still are able to take care of your family, really maintain your life.'"

Lightner followed her own advice. She needed time to grieve and be with her children. Today she sells houses in Virginia. People often ask her how she could go from the head of a national organization to a job as a real estate agent. "I help people make the biggest investment decision of their lives," she says, "There is nothing that makes me feel better than to find the home of their dreams, that they truly love and that I know that they are going to do well, make money and live and be happy. And, to me that is making a difference. It is not saving a life, but it is helping people with the biggest investment in their future. So on the upside, I truly believe that whatever it is that you do, if you look at it a certain way, it is going to help or benefit or do something good for somebody."

Candice Lightner says over the years the pain of her daughter's death has lessened but that it never goes away. The impassioned activist against drunk driving and founder of MADD says, "It is a lot easier to deal with anger and rage than with heartache."

For earlier profiles in VOA's
American Profiles series click here

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