Top critical review
3 people found this helpful
Public Health orientation for a history of drunk driving
on January 28, 2012
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, or Dr. Lerner's open praise for mandatory sentences and license suspensions. (In my first draft of this review, I went off on a long tangent about how public health attitudes toward drunk driving are incompatible with the criminal justice system, but I realized that I do not want to invite an anonymous internet debate that distracts from my recommendations with respect to the book - please don't comment with your thoughts on drunk driving)
My point 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.