Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Barron H. Lerner's "One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900"

Barron H. Lerner is a physician, historian, and professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University. He is the author of Contagion and Confinement: Controlling Tuberculosis along the Skid Road, When Illness Goes Public, and The Breast Cancer Wars: Hope, Fear, and the Pursuit of a Cure in Twentieth-Century America, winner of the William H. Welch Medal of the American Association for the History of Medicine and named a notable book by the American Library Association.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, One for the Road: Drunk Driving since 1900, and reported the following:
My book, One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900, is about the many reasons why the United States has done a much less effective job of controlling drunk driving than many other countries. When I opened it to page 99, the first thought I had was: "With friends like that, who needs enemies?"

The page describes the research of sociologist H. Laurence Ross, who called into question much of the accepted wisdom of anti-drunk driving activists. Specifically, he argued that the stricter laws and punishments implemented after the founding of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) did not deter people from driving drunk. These findings frustrated MADD and other activist groups, who had finally put drunk driving on the map as a serious public health problem. One MADD official termed Ross "the drunk driver's best friend."

This was not really a fair complaint. It is hard to criticize Ross for doing high quality research that complicated fairly simplistic assumptions about drunk driving control. We are seeing some of the same issues these days as statisticians question the value of
mammograms and prostate specific-antigen to screen for cancer. The challenge for public health campaigns is to evolve when existing constructs are challenged.
Learn more about One for the Road at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue