Barron H. Lerner, M.D., is a professor of medicine and population health who published a book in 2011 on the history of efforts to curb drunk driving. He knows very well how difficult it was to get police and prosecutors to take drunk driving accidents seriously at first. Until the 1970s, he says, law enforcement typically looked the other way, even when drunk drivers injured or killed people.
This cultural indifference toward drunk driving didn’t end until the 80s, Lerner says, when activist groups including Remove Intoxicated Drivers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving got involved. Their relentless work succeeded in stigmatizing drunk driving and in getting laws passed treating it as a serious offense.
Between 1980 and 1985, he said more than 700 states and municipalities passed laws against driving under the influence of alcohol. Finally, people who drove drunk were being held responsible for the injuries and deaths they caused.
Tragically, Dr. Lerner now has a new cause. Earlier this month, his 9-year-old nephew was killed when a taxi driver didn’t notice him and his father in a crosswalk, uncomfortably similar to the New Year’s Eve accident in which a 6-year-old girl died in a San Francisco crosswalk.
The accident that killed Dr. Lerner’s nephew is still under investigation, but he believes it may be one of all-too-many examples of reckless driving. Unfortunately, he says, reckless drivers are equally responsible for the injuries and deaths they cause but don’t face consequences nearly as serious as drunk drivers do.
Recently, Lerner says, the New York Post reporters looked into accident trends in that city. Shockingly, over the past five years, at least 21 taxi drivers had been found responsible for injuring or killing pedestrians or bikers, but not one had been criminally charged. Most were just cited and fined.
Uproar surrounding the article prompted the mayor to propose a new initiative aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities in the city through increased surveillance and enforcement. While supporting that initiative, Dr. Lerner believes that only a sea change in the public attitude toward reckless driving will change things.
Any driver at fault in a serious or fatal accident should be held fully responsible. Reckless driving needs to be stigmatized and criminalized, Lerner says, and we can’t afford apathy. If we don’t change the cultural indifference toward it like we did for drunk driving, law enforcement may just look the other way.
Source: The New York Times’ Well blog, “Treat Reckless Driving Like Drunk Driving,” Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Jan. 24, 2014