Saturday, January 28, 2012

One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900

Posted by Kurt

No one approaches drunk driving policy in a vacuum.  Each person has a background and a bias, and the most impressive part of this book is that Dr. Lerner is quite clear about his bias and then tries hard to craft a balanced history book that will help inform readers from other backgrounds.  Dr. Lerner is an expert in public health issues, and he writes a passionate story of the way that drunk driving (and public perceptions of drunk driving, from media coverage to legislation) has had an impact on public health in the last hundred years.  I had a hard time reading this book because of my own personal perspectives, but it does contain a wealth of information, organized in an effective way to tell the story of a nation that is failing to keep its people safe on the roads.

For the first few chapters of this book, Dr. Lerner shares horror stories of the early days of drunk driving, with outrageously lenient sentences for devastating crashes and a pervasive public attitude that drinking and driving wasn’t a big deal.  As someone born in 1980, I have never lived in a world without TV commercials and special episodes and school assemblies about the dangers of drunk driving, and I was shocked by the way the problem was first viewed.  Dr. Lerner follows those stories with thorough chapters on the impact of MADD and related groups, along with the ways that policy objectives and legislation have shifted over the years.  The book also has plenty of examples from the European Union to show other paths that have been taken in efforts to keep the roads safe.  I learned a great deal from this book, so Dr. Lerner achieved his objective.
My main problems with the book come from its tone.  Dr. Lerner approaches the problem as a public health concern, which he does justify with analogies and statistics, and he makes a good case that the most significant legislative advancements have come from those who share his perspective.  I do not share that perspective, though, as I am a public defender.  Like many (if not most) public defenders at the district court level in Massachusetts, I handle drunk driving cases on a regular basis - on any given day, the majority of my caseload may be drunk driving cases.  As someone who drives in Massachusetts, I definitely have an interest in arriving at my destinations safely, and I agree that drunk driving is unsafe at a legally intolerable level.  I lost two friends a few years ago, in a car accident where the driver had been drinking.  Nevertheless, as a public defender, I also have a huge interest in making sure that people’s rights are protected throughout the process of investigation and prosecution of a crime.  I have a hard time reading a book in which Dr. Lerner makes (understandably) unapologetic remarks about sleazy defense lawyers getting their guilty clients off because, for example, there is reasonable doubt as to how accurate a breath test device is.  

(In the versions of this review that I posted to Amazon and Goodreads, I stopped here to prevent long anonymous internet debates that would just make me hate humanity.  This is my own shared blog, though, so I'm going to go off a little.  If you start a long anonymous internet debate, I will probably just delete your comments)  See, Massachusetts has mandatory license suspensions and fines and probation fees and jail sentences, depending on whether or not a conviction is for a first offender or a subsequent offense, and mandatory means that a judge can't waive fees for clients who have no money, or take a lack of public transportation into account when ordering a license suspension, or take away the jail time on a third offense if the first two offenses were twenty years ago and the guy before the court blew a 0.09 at 2:00 AM on a deserted country road.  Drunk drivers are not bad people who give up their Constitutional rights when they make a mistake, and one of the huge frustrations of my job is that this criminal justice matter is a uniquely political issue that gives less and less discretion to experienced judges who can tell a serious case from a minor case but can't give the minor case a break like they could with just about any other crime.  If you draw a public health analogy, there's nothing inherently wrong with putting every possible cholera patient in quarantine, even against their wishes, but we don't charge cholera patients with crimes and take away their abilities to engage in our communities once they get well.  We don't mark cholera infections on a permanent criminal record that potential employers check.  We don't use tax dollars to provide lawyers to cholera patients who don't want to go to jail for a mandatory 2-year sentence.  If legislators want to treat drunk driving as a public health problem, then it shouldn't be charged criminally - but as long as it is charged criminally, then it needs to be addressed as the criminal matter that it is, with all of the Constitutional implications that such a nature produces.
My point, as it relates to One for the Road, is that although the book does present multiple angles and perspectives as they relate to the impact of drunk driving in the States, Dr. Lerner is very clear that approaches that prioritize the rights of people accused of crimes are never more valuable than approaches that risk infringement of rights in the interest of saving lives.  I suspect that very few people will take issue with that value judgment (defense attorneys, some industry lobbyists, probably many people who have been accused of drunk driving...), but I want to make sure that this ideological minority is given fair warning before choosing this book.  To his credit, though, Dr. Lerner saves most of his bile for the outrages of the pre-MADD era, and by the time actual MADD representatives enter the story, the book sounds less like one of their pamphlets and more like a simple historical analysis.
I do recommend this book for historians and other scholars, as Dr. Lerner presents thorough research in a clear fashion.  I simply reserve a little warning about the public health perspective.

(I think I'm supposed to mention here that I received a free copy as part of the Amazon Vine program.)

No comments:

Post a Comment