Barron Lerner never drives through a yellow light — not after the night of January 10, 2014.
That foggy evening, Lerner’s 9-year-old nephew was killed in a crosswalk, struck by a taxi while holding his father’s hand and obeying the green signal. For Lerner, the incident was a tragic intersection of personal and professional.
For years, the professor of medicine and population health at New York University, has been fascinated by the public health implications of our behaviors behind the wheel. In fact, he wrote a book — One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 — that examined the evolution of America’s approach and opposition to drunk driving.
Top photo: At a Capitol Hill rally in 1983, Candy Lightner (left), founder and president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, speaks out in favor of raising the national minimum legal drinking age to 21. This federal law was enacted in 1984. (Photo: Associated Press)
The tragic, unnecessary death of his nephew galvanized Lerner to turn his attention to another fatal aspect of road culture. Now a supporter of the Vision Zero movement, Lerner is focusing his expertise on, what he calls, a far more complicated but equally urgent epidemic: the kind of reckless driving that stole the life of his nephew, Cooper.
Lerner shared his insights at the second annual Vision Zero Cities Conference, sponsored by Transportation Alternatives and attended by hundreds of advocates and officials from across the nation. We caught up with him in advance of the meeting to explore the parallels between the two high-profile movements to change the minds and behaviors of motorists.
When Drunk Driving Was Acceptable
As he describes it, Lerner’s work as a medical historian has explored the balance of public health and personal liberties. So, why is this doctor interested in our driving habits?
While many of us regard traffic infractions as a solely legal issue, our interactions on the road are also among the top causes of American mortality. And, in his research, Lerner saw an interesting disconnect. In writing a book about tuberculosis, he discovered that society approved of very strict measures to keep potential patients from infecting their fellow citizens. But, oddly, people who drove drunk and killed people, were basically let off the hook for their deadly behavior.
“In the era before MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving], it was like the Wild West in respect to drunk driving,” Lerner says. “The punishment was extraordinarily mild, even if you killed somebody. Historical factors had fostered a sort of tolerance for an activity that, to me, seemed entirely inexcusable.”
How did that change? According to Lerner’s research, it was the passionate efforts of activists who formed groups like MADD and RID [Remove Intoxicated Drivers] and pushed for changes to the law and American culture.
The Power of Advocacy
For Lerner, there are clear lessons from the drunk driving movement that translate to our Vision Zero efforts. Most notably: The critical role of storytelling.
“It was the personal stories that turned the tide in the world of drunk driving,” Lerner says. “It was those early activists who were in such pain and disbelief at the loss of a loved one and made their stories public.”
“It was people like Candy Lightner, whose daughter was killed, and other women in MADD and RID, who said, ‘This is unacceptable.’” he explains. “They made it a personal cause. They lobbied local and national government and worked with organizations to create educational materials and slogans to create change such that the loss in their lives had meaning.”
That parallel is painfully present in Lerner’s life. The death of his nephew spurred his sister to be a co-founder of Families for Safe Streets, which has been the leading edge of the Vision Zero movement in New York.
“What’s put this issue on the map are people like my sister; people who found a nearly identical system of passivity and disdain for their losses and made it their business to try to do something about it,” he says.
Strategies for Success
So what shifted that passivity? For the drunk driving movement, it was a two-pronged approach.
First, they pushed to change the laws that allowed intoxicated drivers off with a slap on the wrist. “In the 1980s, the sheer number of laws that were passed, especially raising the drinking age to 21, had a direct effect on the drunk driving movement, and the changes that occurred over that period of time were enormous,” Lerner says.
That approach has been effective in the Vision Zero movement, as well. For instance, Lerner points to the local effort to reduce speed limits in New York City as a major win. Even more effective, though, would be enforcing those limit with more speed cameras, an issue Transportation Alternatives is fighting for in Albany this session. Why? Because drunk driving has shown that legal consequences — when people know in advance that they’re being watched — can be a deterrent.
“There’s very good data, for example, that the best way to get people to not drive drunk is to put up road checkpoints and to announce that you’re doing it,” Lerner says. “When you do that, drunk driving goes way down in that area.”
But enforcement isn’t enough. Tapping into personal morals and shifting cultural norms is critical, as well. For the drunk driving movement, “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” became a household phrase. In New York City, Vision Zero efforts are aiming to conjure similar sentiments with efforts like the heart-wrenching public service announcement “Drive Like Your Family LIves Here.”
“The legal approach and the educational, public health approach go hand in hand,” Lerner says. “Some people hear ‘Friends don’t let friends…’ and take it to heart. They say, on a personal basis, on an ethical basis, I feel that my behaviors need to change and I’m going to incorporate that into my life.”
New Challenges for Vision Zero Advocates
But here’s the rub: Achieving Vision Zero is far more complicated, Lerner acknowledges. When it comes to distracted driving, the contributing factors are vastly more complex. Reckless driving is far less discrete and much more difficult to define.
“Drunk driving is easy to talk about,” Lerner says. “You can measure someone’s blood alcohol level, and either they have or haven’t been drinking. Proving someone was driving recklessly is a harder issue.”
“It’s relatively easy to condemn someone who knowingly drinks too much and kills or injures somebody,” Lerner continues. “But, assuming someone isn’t on a cell phone or on drugs, if they drive into somebody it may be harder to pinpoint what they did wrong. And because it’s more complicated, it’s more of a challenge to change that culture, because the culture you’re trying to change is less concrete. It’s easy to say ‘Don’t drink and drive.’ It’s harder to say ‘Always drive carefully,’ or ‘Don’t ever do anything that endangers a pedestrian.’”
The Stage for Culture Change
Despite the challenge, Lerner believes the Vision Zero movement in New York City has made quick strides. With strong advocacy, policy changes, legislative campaigns and public service announcements, the stage has been set to change the narrative — and New Yorkers driving habits.
“What has happened in the last couple of years is enormous,” Lerner says. “For the people who are doing the activism, it might feel like a drop in the bucket, because there’s so much more to do. But just getting the attention to this issue, getting the speed limit dropped, that’s huge in the scheme of things. And I do think people will look back in 20 or 30 years and say ‘Wow, look how much they accomplished in New York.”
Lerner, for one, has been changed. When he’s behind the wheel, he’s now acutely aware of the countless children, like his nephew, making their way to school or the park. And that consciousness has impacted the way he drives.
“I don’t go through yellow lights,” he says. “I’m much more likely to stop than try to make it through an intersection. Whatever aggressive driving technique I might want to use because I’m in a rush, now I always have in my head that, whatever I’m in a rush for is not worth being aggressive. Not particularly because I’m afraid of being arrested, but because my nephew died and it’s the right thing to do.”
Carolyn Szczepanski is a writer, advocate and communications consultant focused on sustainable mobility and social justice.