It was a double heartbreak for Candy Lightner who lost her daughter 36 years ago this month, days before Mother’s Day. 13-year-old Cari was struck and killed by a drunk driver. It spurred Candy to turn her mother’s pain into the organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD. I’ve long admired MADD’s effective campaign to keep drunk drivers off the road. During the last 3 decades the organization has effectively lobbied in support of laws and tools to prevent drunk driving related deaths and injuries.
But if Timothea Neary-French wins her lawsuit, one of the most practical and efficient tools long promoted by MADD may no longer be in use in Massachusetts. 4 years ago Neary-French was pulled over for operating under the influence, and ordered to take a Breathalyzer test. She argues that the roadside test was illegal-- an unconstitutional search because she was not first allowed to call an attorney. This week Neary-French will put her case before the Massachusetts Supreme Court, but recently the US Supreme Court heard arguments on this same issue. Observers say justices appeared to be divided about whether a Breathalyzer test without a warrant is unconstitutional.
Breathalyzers as a device are also under attack across the country. Some say the results are inaccurate--that measuring the breath does not precisely pin down the alcohol level in the bloodstream. It is true that Breathalyzers are not the absolute measurement that blood and urine tests are. But, advocates maintain the tests consistently identify drivers too drunk to drive. Police are alarmed about the possibility of banned or limited use of Breathalyzer tests. And I worry that without this deterrent the number of impaired drivers on our streets and highways will go up. But, I am also concerned about drivers undergoing an illegal search, the issue raised by Timothea Neary-French’s case and the arguments before the US Supreme Court.
That’s why I think it is critical that the Massachusetts legislature approve a bill requiring ignition interlock devices for the cars of identified drunk drivers.
MADD is lobbying hard for these devices. Essentially they are a mobile Breathalyzer. It prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver’s breath measures alcohol over the legal limit. I once saw firsthand how well it works. A guy parked next to me in the grocery store parking lot blew into the tube again and again desperately trying to start his car. I got scared thinking about him getting drunk in the short period of time he was in and out of the grocery store. Scared imagining him on the road if the device wasn’t in his car. Ignition interlock devices won’t prevent drivers who’ve never been charged with drunk driving from getting behind the wheel. But it can stop the known drunk drivers. I urge lawmakers to think about that tomorrow when the bill comes up for final action.
None of the anti drunk driving solutions are perfect. But when lives are at stake, we can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Candy Lightner buried her daughter decades ago because of a drunk driver. And we’re still a long way from preventing the alcohol related deaths of other daughters and sons. A sobering story this Mother’s Day week.