Drunk Driving and the Media: The MADD Campaign

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO HEALTH, MEDICINE, AND THE MEDIA

By Roy Benaroch, M.D.Emory University

The effect of drinking on driving and the relation with car crashes has been known for a long time. The first publication about this issue was in 1904. But drunk driving was not seen as a problem until the 1980s, when the death of a young girl caused her mother to form MADD: Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The media coverage that followed changed the perception of drunk driving.

Hands on a car wheel, with one hand holding a bottle; blurred lights visible in the distance through the windshield
Drunk driving was not considered to be a serious problem, far less a criminal act, in the early and middle 19th century. (Image: Anukul/ Shutterstock)

The Accidental Death of an Author

On 11 August 1949, Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, was crossing Peachtree Street in Atlanta when she was struck and killed by a drunk driver. She was 49 years old. The driver, who had a record of 22 previous arrests for driving violations, including speeding and drunk driving, came to be viewed with sympathy. At the time, drunk driving victims were considered victims of bad luck. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This was despite the fact that the connection between drunk drivers and road fatalities was not unknown. In 1934, Dr. Herman Heise found that a high percentage of people involved in road fatalities had significant amounts of alcohol in their blood—a finding confirmed in a three-year study in Evansville, Illinois, that found high alcohol concentrations in half of injured drivers. An early prototype of a kind of breathalyzer used in 1938 found that 12% of randomly selected drivers had significant blood alcohol levels.

Margaret Mitchell was one of about 25,000 Americans killed each year from motor vehicle accidents related to drunk driving. And even that word, ‘accident’, is debatable—whether a crash caused by a driver who chose to drink alcohol is even an accident at all. The drinking was not accidental. But that word, accident, helped frame the discussion, and contributed to the kind of attitude that remained pervasive up until about the 1980s. These deaths were just accidents, and there was no one to blame.

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A view of Peachtree Street, Atlanta in the 1970s.
Even the death of Margaret Mitchell at the hands of a drunk driver on Peachtree Street in Atlanta did not raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. (Image: National Archives and Records Administration/Public domain)

The Death of a Teenage Girl

By the 1970s, federal laws, including the Highway Safety Act, funneled more money into enforcement, and there were more drunk driving arrests. Public service announcements regularly promoted messages like ‘Don’t drink and drive’. But these steps didn’t lead to a measurable decrease in drunk-driving crashes or fatalities.

What that took was a change in public perception, a move away from a tolerant attitude toward drunk driving. What it took was a media storm that created a genuine outrage from people to stop accepting these deaths and get mad. What it took was one more tragic death, not of the author of what was then the bestselling novel of its time, but of a 13-year-old girl named Cari Lightner. She died on 3 May 1980, struck by a drunk driver while walking along a road, in a bike lane, with a friend.

The driver who killed Cari didn’t stop his car. But he was later arrested and charged with drunk driving, leaving the scene of an accident, and vehicular manslaughter. He had been released from jail, after a prior arrest for a hit-and-run drunk driving crash, two days before killing Cari, and had three previous drunk driving arrests.

Cari’s killer should not have been behind the wheel. That’s what inspired her mother, Candy Lightner, to form the group, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, four days after Cari’s death.

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MADD and the Media

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD for short, wasn’t the first group to try to draw attention to the problem of drinking and driving, but it was by far the most influential and the most successful one. In fact, MADD is generally given singular credit for driving the media campaign that shifted public attitudes and finally made drunk driving socially unacceptable.

A poster urging people to not drunk and drive. The message say: Stay Alive, Don't Drink and Drive.
After MADD was formed, the implementation of laws against drunk driving began to become more stringent. (Image: astudio/ Shutterstock)

Shortly after the formation of MADD, the media began to contact Ms. Lightner for comments on high profile drunk driving cases. Media coverage increased exponentially, and state legislatures started passing more and stricter drunk driving laws, including laws that made it plainly illegal to drive with an elevated blood alcohol concentration. Other laws empowered the police to confiscate drivers’ licenses at the time of DUI arrests.

By the end of 1980, two more chapters of MADD had been formed in California and Maryland, and articles about it had appeared in many national newspapers and magazines. A press event and march had been held in Washington, D.C., with the support of several congressmen, and Ms. Lightner appeared on the Today and Phil Donahue shows.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan announced the formation of a presidential commission on drunk driving, with MADD invited to participate. By 1990, 10 years after its founding, MADD had gone from essentially a small group of Candy Lightner’s friends to an organization with $50 million in annual revenue, exerting a powerful influence on media portrayals, legislative changes, and research into curbing drunk driving.

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MADD and Leveraging Public Relations

MADD created a very efficient public relations engine that could respond quickly and unequivocally to news stories. At the same time it kept up community-level engagement by keeping pressure on local police departments to enforce DUI laws. How did they do it?

Simply put, they put a face, a real face, on a problem that until that time had been merely statistical. Real people were being killed, and MADD focused attention especially on children like Cari Lightner. It was hard to argue with mothers of children killed by drunk drivers, especially when they got mad!

The end result has been safer roads for all of us. The rate of fatalities from drunken driving dropped from about 30,000 a year in 1980 to about 16,000 in 2004, and then to about 10,000 in 2016. Just as important, a 2014 survey reported that over 90% of adults consider drunk driving unacceptable.

The lesson we’ve learned from MADD’s media blitz is that drunk driving accidents aren’t accidents at all, but the predictable outcome of a choice that people make. And with the media’s help we can convince people to make a better choice.

Common Questions about Drunk Driving Laws

Q. Why did Margaret’s Mitchell’s death not cause a big reaction against drunk driving initially?

On Margaret Mitchell’s death due to a drunk driver, there was not much public outcry or reaction. But the word ‘accident’ helped frame the discussion, and contributed to the kind of attitude that remained pervasive up until about the 1980s. These deaths were just seen as an accident, and therefore no one was to blame.

Q. How did action against drunk driving progress by the 1970s?

By the 1970s, federal laws, including the Highway Safety Act, funneled more money into enforcement, and there were more drunk driving arrests. Public service announcements regularly promoted messages like ‘Don’t drink and drive’.

Q. Why is MADD given credit for the successful campaign against drunk driving?

MADD created a very efficient public relations engine that could respond quickly and unequivocally to news stories. At the same time it kept up community-level engagement by keeping pressure on local police departments to enforce DUI laws. It also put a real face on a problem that until that time had been merely statistical.

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