Why We Still Drink and Drive

One for the Road Explores the Culture and History of a Not-So-Great American Pastime

October 11, 2011

From an early age we know how dangerous it is to drink and drive, yet every day millions of Americans hit the road while under the influence. In One for the Road, the first book to take a look at on why people choose to drive drunk 30 years after the founding of MADD, Barron H. Lerner, MD, presents two clashing perspectives on driving drunk, both deeply imbedded in American culture: the official view that drunk driving is dangerous and completely unacceptable (not to mention illegal), and the view that the problem is exaggerated and overregulated.

Dr. Lerner, who is a Mailman School of Public Health professor of Sociomedical Sciences and a professor of medicine at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, explores the reasons for these opposing views and examines drunk driving in the context of American beliefs about driving, individualism, civil liberties and alcoholism.

Dr. Lerner also engages in some personal explorations of the topic. To better understand what blood alcohol levels mean, he purchased a Breathalyzer and a bottle of vodka and started drinking. He found that three shots of vodka on an empty stomach over one hour raised his blood alcohol level only to 0.05%.  His speech was slurred, he felt “buzzed” and, had he taken to the road, he doubted that he could handle an unexpected obstacle or incident. And yet, because the legal blood alcohol level in the United States is 0.08%, it would have been entirely legal for him to drive.

A report just issued by the CDC finds that alcohol-impaired driving crashes account for nearly 11,000 annual crash fatalities, or about one-third of all crash fatalities in the U.S., and that an estimated 4 million adults said they had at least one episode of alcohol-impaired driving in 2010.

One for the Road asks and explains why, despite these statistics and the work of passionate campaigns of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, this situation is still tolerated and effective strategies to reduce drunk driving are underused in the U.S.

“Everyone in this country has heard the expression, ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,’ yet, unfortunately and tragically, we still do,” said Dr. Lerner.

In addition to this latest book, Dr. Lerner is the author of When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine and The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, which won the William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine and was named a notable book by the American Library Association.

In addition to his research, Dr. Lerner practices internal medicine and teaches medical ethics and the history of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.