Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began with the admirable goal of reducing drunk-driving traffic fatalities by educating the nation about the devastation caused by drunk drivers. For the first 15 years, this strategy paid off: MADD’s public relations campaigns played a key role in changing the nation’s attitude about drunk driving, resulting in a huge drop-off in drunk driving deaths. MADD was so successful that it reached its goal for 2000 (to reduce alcohol-related deaths by 20%) in 1997.
The unintended consequence, of course, is that MADD began to outgrow its mission. MADD’s success changed it into a huge, $46 million organization, but after a certain point its public relations and education campaigns had changed society’s view of drunk driving, reducing the problem to what then-MADD president Katherine Prescott called “a hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeal.” In MADD’s own opinion, these are people who are not swayed by red ribbon campaigns and slogans.
At this point, MADD’s management shifted goals. It decided against a change in tactics to go after this remaining “hard core of alcoholics”; instead it changed the definition of the problem so that it once again included the reasonable adults who respond to MADD’s PR campaigns. MADD did so by shifting its rhetoric from “Don’t Drive Drunk” to “Don’t Drink and Drive” and inventing the concept of the “habitual drinking driver problem,” (people who often have drinks with dinner but are not drunk).
Unfortunately, this new “mission” has nothing to do with drunk driving; it is a manifestation of MADD’s deep-seated belief that any and all drinking before driving should be prohibited — regardless of whether it’s done responsibly and legally. Instead of focusing on repeat offenders and those who are too drunk to drive, the twenty-first-century MADD endorses higher beverage taxes, needlessly low drunk driving arrest thresholds, and roadblocks designed to frighten people out of social drinking. These tactics have failed to reduce drunk driving deaths, since they target social drinkers, not product abusers.
In March 2004, MADD expanded its attack on responsible adults by calling for a “mandatory provision in every separation agreement and divorce decree that prohibits either parent from drinking and driving … with minor children in the vehicle.” Violating this provision, it argues, should result in penalties such as license suspension, jail, or even the “termination of parental rights.”
Once again, MADD is not talking about drunk driving, but drinking and driving — meaning that if a divorced mother safely drives her children home after having a glass of wine with dinner at a restaurant, MADD supports sanctions that include losing custody of her children.
MADD founder Candy Lightner has broken ties with the group. In 2002, she told the Washington Times, “[MADD] has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned … I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”
In a three-page 1998 report, sociologist and MADD national board member Ralph Hingson claimed that lowering the nationwide drunk-driving arrest threshold from .10% to 0.08% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) would save 500 lives a year. Despite being thoroughly discredited by highway traffic safety experts — the U.S. General Accounting Office labeled his claim “unfounded” in its 1999 report to Congress — MADD continued to cite his research and repeatedly used it to convince many states to adopt “.08” legislation.
Even though there are serious questions about their efficacy, MADD also promotes its Victim Impact Panels (VIP). Many judges around the country require that anyone convicted of a DUI go to one of these panels, where offenders pay MADD a fee to hear victims or relatives of victims of drunk driving crashes relate their stories. But a study of VIPs in New Mexico found that “female repeat offenders referred to VIPs were significantly more likely to be rearrested compared with those not referred, with an odd of rearrest more than twice that of females not referred.” And though MADD, in response to the study, asserted that VIPs were intended for first-time offenders, the study also “failed to demonstrate any effect of VIPs on recidivism rates for female and male first-time DWI offenders or for male repeat offenders.” The authors explain these findings by looking at other studies, and concluding “There is evidence that confrontational approaches are ineffective in the treatment of alcohol problems.”
Despite the findings from this study, and others, MADD continues to promote these ineffective programs — perhaps because they bring in much-needed revenue while allowing members a chance to vent and air their grief.
VIPs are not the only time where, when push came to shove, MADD ignored its principles to keep its coffers full. Another noteworthy case was the 2000 battle over two California ballot initiatives (Propositions 30 and 31) that sought to permit an automobile accident victim to sue the at-fault driver’s insurance company if legitimate claims weren’t paid promptly. Considering that victims of drunk drivers stood to gain an important legal tool, most Californians expected MADD to lead the charge in favor of these new measures. However, MADD aligned itself with a group of out-of-state insurance companies, which collectively ran a $1 million-per-week advertising campaign against the propositions.
MADD defended its position at the time by arguing that drunk drivers themselves, if convicted only of lesser charges, could sue insurance companies under the proposed law. Even after California’s Attorney General disagreed, ruling that Propositions 30 and 31 could never give drunk drivers new rights, MADD never budged from its bizarre contradictory position. The organization’s motive? Money, plain and simple. MADD’s 1999-2000 annual report acknowledges Allstate Insurance Company donated an amount in the “$250,000 and above” category. Nationwide Mutual Insurance gave over $100,000 that year.
MADD’s seemingly insatiable search for funding has also drawn criticism from charity watchdogs. In 1994, Money magazine reported that telemarketers raised over $38 million for MADD, keeping nearly half of it in fees. In that same year, the group spent more than $2 million on travel and conventions. Compare that to MADD’s paltry lobbying budget (a four-year total of only $636,000 from 1991 to 1994), and it’s not hard to see why the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP) consistently gives MADD poor grades for its high bureaucratic costs. Indeed, MADD funnels about 50 cents of every dollar back to its fund-raising efforts, which is about one and a half times what AIP considers acceptable.
MADD’s campaign to make adult beverages more expensive through drastically increased taxes is another major tactic in their war on responsible drinking. MADD says these tax hikes are a way to reduce underage drinking — but lacks real evidence that taxes are more likely to reduce underage drinking than moderate consumption by responsible adults.
A Congressionally-appointed panel of notorious neo-prohibitionists was forced to admit that “there are no studies that provide evidence” for MADD’s position.
In fact, there is strong evidence that underage drinkers are less price sensitive than adults. Henry Wechsler, a leading anti-alcohol researcher, conducted a study to determine the price sensitivity of college students, and found:
[M]ale college students are virtually unresponsive to price … [and] substantial increases in taxes would be necessary to achieve relatively modest reductions in binge drinking by female students. For example, a doubling of the Federal beer tax to 64 cents per six-pack would lead to less than a 2% reduction in binge drinking participation rates among female students …
Citing this study, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism concluded in its “10th Special Report to the U.S. Congress on Alcohol and Health” that “alcohol prices were a less salient determinant of the drinking behavior of college students than they were in other population groups.” The reason for this is simple: the data show that the vast majority of underage drinkers do not buy their alcohol, and so are unaffected by price.
But MADD continues to push for higher taxes, in spite of the evidence, because while taxes are a highly questionable way to reduce underage drinking, they do reduce consumption by responsible adults.
MADD has managed to artificially enlarge the societal problem of drunk driving by continuously expanding the parameters of the “drinking driving problem.” Even though the real drunk driving problem has been reduced to a relatively small group of incorrigible “hard-core” offenders, MADD continues to intensify its focus on responsible adults.
The reason is simple: MADD has essentially become a public relations organization, and PR campaigns only work on responsible adults; product abusers are not affected by slogans and red ribbon campaigns. So MADD ignores the truly drunk drivers who cause an overwhelming majority of the deaths, and instead goes after social drinkers with massive PR scare campaigns.
This persecution of social drinkers is fueled not only by MADD’s organizational imperative, but also by its fanatical conviction that no one should be allowed to drink anything before driving. Behind its support for ever-lower drunk driving arrest thresholds, higher taxes, and anti-alcohol media campaigns lies a “zero tolerance” fervor.
The organization fuels a belief that adults’ legal freedom to drink responsibly before driving should be sacrificed if there is even the most remote possibility that it might stop one drunk driver. This extreme sentiment was likely behind MADD’s current campaign to legally compel divorced and separated parents to refrain from drinking anything before driving their children — or face loss of custody, jail time, or even the termination of parental visiting rights.
This new campaign also helps MADD by justifying its perpetual fundraising effort — a huge endeavor, since its $46 million bureaucracy spends over $12 million in salaries, pensions and benefits alone each year.
To keep the money rolling in, MADD must continue and expand its nationwide guilt trip by admonishing adults not to drink anything before driving, lest they become the ultimate pariah, a “drinking driver.” This serves the dual purpose of creating a huge “drinking driver problem” (showing the need for MADD), and setting up a group of impressionable, responsible adults who will respond to MADD’s PR campaigns by abstaining from drinking altogether (proving MADD’s worth). The fact that MADD’s campaigns largely ignore the real drunk drivers is beside the point.