Monday, October 24, 2011

"One for the Road," by Barron Lerner

UPDATE, November 17: Barron Lerner will be discussing the book on "All Things Considered" on NPR today at approximately 4:30 EST. 

If you came of age in the 1970s and 80s it seemed as if MADD—Mothers Against Drunk Driving—and its anti-drunk driving message were everywhere, and that the US culture embraced a clear consensus: drinking and driving should not be done together, ever. But, according to Barron Lerner’s new history “One for the Road,” it didn’t have have to be this way. (Even MADD changed its name; at the start it was ‘Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.’)

In contrast to a long history of regulating impaired driving elsewhere in the world, particularly in Europe, in the US, habitual respect for individualism clashed against the imperative to protect everyone from an impaired person driving a car. Everything was fought over, from the reliability of the various mechanisms that calculate the amount of alcohol in the blood, to the idea of linking a level of Blood Alcohol Content to a degree of impairment (who knew that Indiana would be a leader in this regard?). Some people argued that social drinkers could drive safely. Others argued equally strenuously that it was heavy drinkers who could, since they knew how to hold their liquor.

I have written elsewhere (here and here for example) about the importance of understanding the context and uncertainties of statistics someone is wielding to prove a point, and Lerner highlights the issue in his book:

The debate [about the effectiveness of efforts to control drunk driving] nicely demonstrated a perpetual challenge of activist movements: balancing fervor for a cause with justification from the available scientific data. How much scientific ‘proof’ is necessary for activists to forge ahead with seemingly just and moral agenda? Successful public health movements to control infectious diseases, prevent smoking-related lung cancers, and remove lead from paint, to name just a few, relied on suggestive—not definitive—data. This strategy has been termed the ‘precautionary principle.’ Waiting for the science, in retrospect, would have cost lives.
  
In lucid and unadorned prose, Lerner takes a step back from the tangles, and considers the social, cultural and enforcement issues of driving while distracted (studies have shown that the cognitive efforts required to talk on the phone create as much of an impairment to the judgment and reaction times you need while driving as driving drunk can; texting while driving takes your eyes off the road). Whether driving while impaired or distracted is viewed as a law enforcement problem, a public health problem, or an illness, American individualism, he concludes, will always make protecting Americans from drunk drivers an issue. Lerner has described this as his “preachiest” book ever; I don’t think so. In an earnest tone, he lays out a compelling case for strict driving laws. His conclusion is clear: it’s to protect all of us against the massive damage an impaired driver can cause.

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