Chapter 17

Victims of Drunk Driving Crashes

Abstract: Before the 1980s, drunk driving death and injury were considered unfortunate but socially acceptable. Victims were thought to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to avoid "accidents." With the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other grassroots victim groups, crash victims are no longer simply an amorphous mass of statistics; they have names and faces, and their tragedies impact hundreds of thousands of survivors. With a combination of victim assistance, prevention programs and aggressive public policy initiatives, drunk driving deaths are down 40% since 1980 -- but much more remains to be done.

Learning Objectives: Upon completion of this chapter, students will understand the following:

1. How grass-roots efforts founded a nationwide movement against drunk driving.

2. The impact of drunk driving on the victim.

3. Critical legislative measures enacted to reduce drunk driving.

4. Federal and state level responses to reducing drunk driving.

5. MADD's victim service programs.

Statistical Overview


The 1982 Final Report of the President's Task Force on Victims of Crime did not address drunk driving, even though in 1982, 25,165 people were killed in impaired driving crashes, and drunk driving was one of the most frequently committed crimes in this country. The lack of attention to this class of victims is attributable, in part, to the fact that grassroots groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) were in their infancy, and drinking and driving was still considered acceptable -- the consequences just an "accident."

Activism and Public Policy

With the advent of MADD and other grassroots groups, public awareness of drinking and driving as a preventable crime grew rapidly. The number of legislative countermeasures at both the federal and state levels increased, and public policy became the focal point of efforts to reduce deaths and injuries resulting from impaired driving crashes.

MADD and Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) were the first activist groups that began putting names and faces to the statistics. One of the first nationally recognized victims was five-month-old Laura Lamb, riding in the carseat beside her mother as they drove to the store in November, 1979. They were hit head-on by a drunk driver speeding toward them at 120 mph. He had no driver's license, no insurance, and a record of 37 traffic violations - three of them for drunk driving. Laura became the America's youngest quadriplegic and her story was told throughout the nation as Maryland's Congressman Michael Barnes introduced the nation's first tough anti-drunk driving legislation.

In May, 1980, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was walking to a church carnival with her friend when she was hit from behind and killed instantly by a man who had been out of jail only two days since being arrested for another hit-and run drunk driving crash. In fact, his record revealed three previous drunk driving arrests. Candy Lightner, Cari's mother, from California and Cindy Lamb from Maryland joined forces late in 1980 to form Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Since then, thousands of volunteers, both victims and concerned citizens, have worked to stop drunk driving. Their efforts, combined with a lowered speed limit, increased use of seatbelts and airbags, and other safety measures have contributed to more arrests for drunk driving every day than for any other crime. And drunk driving fatality rates are down 40% -- from 28,000 in 1980 to 16,884 in 1994 (NHTSA, 1995).

Historical Perspective

Drunk driving is not a new problem. Henry Ford worried about it when he introduced "motor carriages" as a quantum leap from horse-drawn carriages. He knew that imbibing would place drivers of his automobiles at more at risk than those traveling by horse and carriage. The horses knew how to get home.

In the 1960s, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began showing legislators and the public the staggering number of deaths attributable to traffic crashes in general and alcohol-related crashes in particular. A few drunk driving laws were passed at that time, but they stipulated that a .10 or .12 blood alcohol content only "presumed" an individual to be intoxicated; the charge of intoxication was rebuttable. In 1972, Nebraska and New York passed the first laws stating that a .10 blood alcohol content was conclusively "illegal per se." No further evidence of impaired ability to drive was needed. These laws were based on the fact that at .10, every person, regardless of tolerance to alcohol, was significantly impaired in his or her ability to operate a motor vehicle (Alcohol and Health, 1974).

South Dakota, Utah and Vermont followed in 1973; Florida and North Carolina in 1974; and Oregon in 1975. By 1979, twelve states had set an illegal per se limit, all of them at .10 except New Hampshire which set its per se limit at .15 (Assembly Office of Research, 1979).

However, neither the press nor the public paid much attention, as indicated by a two-inch article printed in the October 16, 1979 edition of the New York Times, which noted an all-time record number of people had been killed in "road accidents" in 1978 -- 50,145 people (New York Times, 1979).

Not until 1980 did the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration publish its first issue paper on illegal per se and preliminary breath testing that proposed model language for both laws (NHTSA, 1980).

Anti-drunk Driving Movement

A unique characteristic of the anti-drunk driving movement is its equal emphasis on prevention programs and victim services. Perhaps this is most clear in public policy development and implementation. Grassroots victims organizations attracted not only the minds of the public and the legislative bodies, but their hearts as well.

Between 1982 and 1993, more than 1700 pieces of DUI legislation were passed in nationwide. One result of legislative success is the proportion of traffic fatalities that are alcohol-related declined from 57% in 1982 to 40% in 1994 (NHTSA, 1995). The proportion of drivers in fatal crashes who had a blood alcohol level of .10 or greater has declined from more than one third in the beginning of the decade to less than one-fourth at the end of it. The percent of fatally injured drivers with high BACs (.20 or greater) has decreased substantially over the last decade. Alcohol-related fatalities in the 15 to 20-year-old age group declined from 4,133 in 1982 to 1,756 in 1994 -- a 56% drop. The bottom line success over the last decade, however, is measured in total lives saved. In 1980, there were approximately 28,000 alcohol-related fatalities. By 1994, this number had been reduced to 16,884 (NHTSA, July 1995).

Impact of Drunk Driving on the Victim

"The worst is to do nothing because you can only do a little." (Edmund Burke)

It is difficult to work with survivors of those killed and injured in alcohol or other drug-related crashes because our criminal justice system does not provide similar sanctions for this crime as it does for other crimes with the same result -- dead and catastrophically maimed victims. It is difficult to explain to a family that the offender in their case faces a maximum sentence a fraction of what he or she would have faced if a weapon other than a vehicle had been used. Unfortunately, public policy has not yet caught up with the public notion that a death at the hands of an impaired driver is murder.

Much of what is known about grief is based on research of terminally ill individuals and their loved ones. Although correlations can be drawn from traditional thanatology, i.e.( the study of death and dying), there are significant differences when the death is sudden and traumatic. Understanding those critical differences can enable the service provider to create an environment of support and healing even when the system is unable to acknowledge drunk driving death as murder or drunk driving injury as assault.

Sudden Death & Injury

Impaired driving crashes are sudden. There is no time for psychological preparation, no time for closure with the dead, no time to draw upon previous coping skills. There is nothing in the human experience that can adequately prepare someone to kiss a spouse good-bye in the morning and then be notified that their spouse is never coming home again. No previous experience can equip someone to tell a child to be home by curfew and then to get a knock at the door from a police officer bringing the devastating news. When the death is caused by a vehicular crash, there is no opportunity to say the "goodbye's," "I love you's," and "I'm sorry's" that need to be said. Although it is a myth that ill and injured people and those around them take care of their closing business, at least they have the opportunity to do so.

For the survivors of those killed by impaired drivers, their first task is simply to grasp what has happened. It will take considerable time for the mind and the heart to assimilate the enormity of the trauma, let alone to accommodate it in any way. Those supporting the survivors want to see signs of healing, acknowledgment and moving on, often before the survivor has even comprehended what has happened. The injured experience the same unrealistic "pushes" toward recovery. Comments like, "You are getting better, aren't you" and "You're just so lucky to be alive" discount the physical and emotional trauma of the injured.

Service providers can create a supportive environment by allowing injured victims and family members of those killed or injured to talk about the elements of the experience that are the most significant to them at the moment.

As Rabbi Earl Grollman says, "If it's mentionable, it's manageable."

Violent Nature of Vehicular Crashes

Death and injury at the hands of an impaired driver almost always includes violence. No matter what one's own theology is about what happens to the soul at the moment of death, there is something infinitely precious about the bodies of our loved ones. The knowledge that the loved one's body was catastrophically damaged is enormously painful for the survivor.

Service providers naturally want to protect the family from additional pain and anguish and may mistakenly believe that withholding the opportunity to be with the body, photos, and information will help to do that. Unfortunately, lack of information and choices only exacerbates the pain, as survivors tend to fill in the gaps of their knowledge by imagining horrific scenarios.

Having the opportunity to view the body provides the survivor with important information needed to begin processing the traumatic event.

Whether or not the survivor viewed their loved one after death, many survivors want access to photographs that were taken at the crime scene or during the autopsy. If the survivor wishes to see the photographs or wants copies, do your best to honor those wishes. As one bereaved father put it,

"The worst thing that could happen to me had already happened. I knew her injuries were so severe that they killed her, and I was prepared for that. What I wasn't prepared for was everyone's resistance. I knew what I could handle, and all I was asking for was the opportunity to see pictures that a large number of people had already seen."

As with viewing the body, the requirement for viewing photos is preparation. Parents of Murdered Children offers a helpful technique for assisting the bereaved in viewing difficult photographs of their loved one.

This technique offers the survivor two pieces of information from which to decide whether or not to look at a specific photo. The survivor has both the verbal description of the photo and the trusted friend's reaction, through body language and tone of voice, to assist in deciding whether or not to view the picture.

Some survivors want to see all the pictures; others want to see only one or two, usually to confirm that it really was their loved one who was killed. Those who want possession of copies often don't choose to look at them at that time. They may be tucked in a file or drawer, but the survivor knows the photos may be viewed at his or her discretion, not someone else's.

Catastrophic injury resulting in permanent disability may have a more lasting impact on families than death. Physical and emotional suffering over-spends energy needed to function on a day by day basis. Likewise, socio-economic levels nearly always drop due to lack of income of at least one wage-earner in the family. Advocates must not neglect this crucial component of services. Likewise, attention to the care-givers of the permanently injured must not be ignored. A good resource for families of the injured is Injury: Learning to Live Again (Mercer, 19??) available from MADD.

Senseless Act

Senselessness has been described as "the distinctive mark of drunk driving death and injury." Drunk or drugged driving deaths are someone's fault and therefore always could have been prevented. The offender engaged in choices -- to use alcohol or other drugs and to get behind the wheel of a car. That is the reason advocates within the anti-drunk driving movement are careful not to describe the consequences as an "accident." Words like "crash," "crime" or "incident" don't minimize the offender's responsibility for the tragedy as does the word "accident."

Another language issue for survivors is distinction between "died" and "killed."

According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, one of the tasks of mourning that leads to healing is creating a context of meaning for the event. This may be among the most difficult tasks for victims of alcohol-related crashes. Some survivors find meaning within their personal faith journey. Others find it through activism or helping others who are suffering. Still others find a context of meaning through personal value changes, perhaps learning to say "I love you" more often or spending more time with family. Creating a context of meaning never explains the crime or makes it acceptable, but it does help the survivor identify outcomes that honor and memorialize the deceased and affirm the changed lives of survivors.

Faith/Philosophy of Life Issues

Just as there are financial, emotional, social, and physical components to every crisis, there are spiritual ramifications as well. Those who have never thought much about God before will do so after a loved one has been killed. For those of faith, there may be a spiritual crisis as great or even greater than that of the non-faithful.

In a study conducted of survivors of those killed in alcohol-related crashes, (Mercer, 1995a) it was noted those reporting they had some or a lot of faith prior to the death of their loved one found their faith becoming stronger over time. Those having little or no faith prior to the death of their loved one found their faith staying the same or getting weaker.

Among those whose faith became stronger, it was clear that the process took much time and that it was primarily an internal one. Respondents were highly critical of the lack of outreach or support they had received from their clergy and faith community. Reasons for dissatisfaction included being told that they shouldn't be angry; being told they should forgive the offender; feeling unsupported when they "fell apart" in church; and being told that they didn't have enough faith or trust in God.

Few things in life are more profound than standing with someone who has experienced the soul-shattering, sudden, violent death or catastrophic injury of someone loved. The authority and status of a victim service provider or criminal justice professional offers an unparalleled opportunity to be of support and guidance during this experience. The memory of a loved one killed by an impaired driver holds a unique place in the heart of the homicide survivor, but very near that special place are the memories of those who truly helped. Equipped with courage, compassion and knowledge about the unique nature of drunk driving death and injury, you will be counted as one of those extraordinary people.

Practices That Have Impacted Drunk Driving

Public Policy: Prevention

The following legislative measures helped reduce drunk driving nationwide:

Recommendation: All states should develop and legislatively protect sobriety checkpoints and other highly visible enforcement programs

The federal government must continue to invest resources to stop drunk driving and ensure the passage of substantive laws at the state level. For every dollar spent on highway safety in 1992, a cost savings of $33 was achieved in lives saved (NHTSA, 1994). Continuation of the incentive grant programs that have been so effective is crucial.

The goal of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) to reduce alcohol-related fatalities to 43% by 1996 has been achieved two years ahead of schedule, and MADD's goal to reduce the proportion of traffic fatalities that are alcohol-related to 40% by the year 2000 has been achieved. However, components of the 1995 National Highway Safety Act that did away with the 55 m.p.h. speed limit and mandatory helmet laws are extremely likely to increase overall fatalities and injuries.

The Department of Transportation recently announced the ambitious goal of reducing alcohol-related fatalities to no more than 11,000 per year by the year 2005 (NHTSA, 1995). This would mean a reduction of about 5,000 annually from the 1994 level, saving 16 more lives each day. MADD has adopted the goal of 11,000 by 2005, but emphasized that there is no acceptable minimum number of alcohol-related deaths or injuries. MADD's mission will not be accomplished until drunk driving death and injury is eliminated.

Public Awareness

Public awareness programs must not be overlooked as a component of the significantly reduced drunk driving fatality rate. MADD's positive relationship with the National Association of Broadcasters was solidified in 1984 when MADD decided not to oppose alcohol advertising. Public service announcements, as well as paid advertisements by numerous corporations, are believed to have made a difference, although their effect is difficult to measure. "MADD: The Candy Lightner Story" which aired as NBC's Movie of the Week in March, 1983, was seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers and resulted in the development of more than 200 MADD chapters in 40 states. It also served as the catalyst for a significant increase in media coverage on drunk driving. A Catholic University study indexed five major newspapers (New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Christian Science Monitor) and 370 periodicals in 1983. The study found that print coverage of drunk driving increased dramatically from four stories in 1980, to 30 stories in 1981, to 116 stories in 1982, and to 219 stories in 1983 (McCarthy, 1986).

Other public awareness programs may have contributed to the decline in drunk driving: MADD's Poster/Essay Contest for elementary through high school youth and the Red Ribbon Campaigns of Parents for Drug Free Youth and MADD "(Tie One on for Safety)" reach thousands. Alcohol-free prom and graduation parties are now common-place throughout the nation. MADD's Sobriety Checkpoint Weekend over the July 4 weekend has received significant media attention, as have Candlelight Vigils of Remembrance and Hope held at the local, state and national levels each December.

Victim Services

In 1980, victims of impaired driving crashes were rarely considered victims of crime. They were excluded, along with non-alcohol-related vehicular victims, from crime victims compensation programs. The few states developing Victims' Bills of Rights in the 1980s excluded drunk driving victims because drunk driving -- even when it resulted in death or injury -- was generally classified as a misdemeanor.

When drunk driving crash victims started speaking out in the 1980's, they pointed out that what had happened to them was not an accident. It was the result of two clear choices:

  1. To use alcohol or other drugs.
  2. To get behind the wheel of a vehicle.

These choices were as endangering to the public as wielding a loaded gun. Research began to show that families of someone killed by a drunk driver suffered a very similar aftermath to that of families of someone murdered (Amick-McMullan et. al., 1989, 1991; Lehman et. al., 1987). Persons permanently and catastrophically injured in crashes were incensed when someone said they were not victims of a violent crime.

MADD has developed a series of 20 brochures for victims which addresses various features of victimization. The organization also requires that each chapter provide eight basic services to victims, and many more are offered by chapters who provide Level II and Level III services. Each chapter's advocate must receive a minimum forty hours of training and must comply with numerous policies to encourage quality care. Many MADD chapters offer Victim Support Groups and Victim Impact Panels. Advocates assist victims in writing victim impact statements and completing compensation forms. They assist victims through the criminal justice process, attending court if requested. MADD offers a wide array of prevention programs for victims to participate in, when they are ready to become actively involved in MADD's mission.

Public Policy Goals: Victim Rights

The following public policy goals related to drunk driving crash victims have been addressed since 1980.


Administrative License Revocation: A law providing for prompt suspension of the license of drivers charged with DWI upon the finding that the driver had a BAC above the prescribed. The law enables the license suspension to go into effect prior to adjudication of the DWI charge.

Alcohol-Related Fatality/Crash: A vehicular crash or pedestrian fatality involving a driver who has a positive BAC, not necessarily above the illegal per se or presumptive level.

BAC - Blood Alcohol Concentration: The number indicates the grams of alcohol contained in every 100 milliliters of the person's blood. For example, a BAC of .10% means there is 1/10 gram of alcohol in 100 milliliters of blood.

Designated Driver: A person among a group who agrees to refrain from alcohol use so the group may be assured of having a sober driver. Some bars and restaurants offer incentives to designated drivers by offering free soft drinks, reduced-cost meals, etc.

Impairment: Effects of alcohol or other drugs that are less severe than intoxication or drunkenness but still diminish driving ability.

Intoxication: A term linked with a specific level of BAC, usually connotating observable and severe effects of alcohol.

Per Se: In and of itself; for example, operating a vehicle with a BAC at or above a certain level based on chemical tests is conclusive evidence of intoxication, regardless of whether or not the individual appears to be or acts intoxicated.

Presumptive: No conclusive evidence; for example, a legal presumption can, and often is, rebutted. A defendant whose BAC is above 0.10% could be found not guilty if the statute includes "presumptive" rather than "per se" language and the defendant did not appear obviously intoxicated.

Provisional License: A drivers license issued to young people (usually 15 to 17-year-olds) that withholds some of the driving privileges granted to adults; for example, a provisional license may require a curfew, seat-belt use, parental supervision; and .00% BAC. Each year, some of the restrictions are removed if the youth does not violate the provisions.

Sobriety Checkpoints: A system where law enforcement agencies select a particular location for a particular time period and systematically stop vehicles (for example, every third car) to investigate drivers for possible DWI. If any evidence of intoxication is noted, a more detailed investigation ensues.

Self Examination Chapter 17

Victims of Drunk Driving Crashes

1) Name at least one reason for the significant drop in drunk driving deaths beginning in the early 1980s.

2) Name three of the first states to pass .10 per se laws.

3) How much has the drunk driving fatality rate for victims under age 21 dropped since 1982?

4) How did the 1988 reauthorization of VOCA affect drunk driving crash victims?

5) Name three emerging issues in drunk driving that you think would make a difference in reducing injuries and deaths.


Accidents at an all time high. (1979, October 16). New York Times, p. 32.

Amick-McMullan, A., Kilpatrick, D., Veronen, L., & Smith, S. (1989). Family survivors of homicide victims: Theoretical perspectives and an exploratory study. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 2, (1), 21-35.

Amick-McMullan, A., Kilpatrick, D., & Veronen, L. (1989). Family survivors of homicide victims: A behavioral analysis. The Behavior Therapist, 12, (4), 75-79.

Amick-McMullan, A., Kilpatrick, D., & Resnick, H. (1991, October). Homicide as a risk factor for PTSD among surviving family members. Behavior Modification, 549-559.

California Legislature. (1979, March). States that have illegal per se laws relating to driving under the influence of alcohol. California Legislature, Assembly Office of Research.

Cohen, R. L. (1992, September). Drunken driving. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (1994). Crime in the United States, 1993. Washington, DC: Author.

Lehman, D. & Wortman, C. (1987). Long-term effects of losing a spouse or child in a motor vehicle crash. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, (1), 218-231.

McCarthy, J., Wolfason, M., Baker, D., & Mosakowski, E. (1986, September). The founding of social movement organizations: Local citizens groups opposing drunk driving. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, New York, New York.

Mercer, D. (1995a). Mediating effects of religious participation and personal religiosity on recovery from victimization by a drinking driver. Report from drunken victim impact panels: Victim outcomes, preliminary report. (Grant No. 1-R01-M#48987). Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Resources, National Institute of Mental Health.

Mercer, D. (1995b). Drunk driving victim impact panels: Victim outcomes. (Grant No. 1-R01-M#48987). Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Resources, National Institute of Mental Health.

Miller, T., & Blincoe, J. (1994). Incidence and cost of alcohol-related crashes. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 26, (5), 583-591.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1974). Alcohol and health: New knowledge. Washington, DC: Author.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1980, March). Alcohol countermeasures: Illegal per se and preliminary breath testing. Washington, DC: Author.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1994, December). A Preliminary assessment of the impact of lowering the illegal BAC per se limit to .08 in five states. Washington, DC: Author.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1995, March). Partners in progress: National impaired driving goals and strategies for 2005. Washington, DC: Author.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (1995, August). Fatal accident reporting system. Washington, DC: Author.

Orsay, E., Doan-Wiggins, L., Lewis, R., & Lucke, V. (1994, July). The impaired driver: Hospital and police detection of alcohol and other drugs of abuse in motor vehicle crashes. Annals of Emergency Medicine.

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