A Legacy of Safe Streets

Legacy Matters!

On May 3, 1980, 13-year old Cari was walking in her neighborhood in northern California.  She was on her way to a church carnival.  She no doubt was oblivious of the fact that Pope John Paul II was one day into his news-worthy African tour. Nor was she aware that just a few hundred miles away, the United States was conducting nuclear tests at a Nevada Test Site.  No, all she cared about that day was meeting her friends at the church carnival.  She never met those friends.

Just minutes from the church, as she waited on the corner of Sunset and New York Avenues, a drunken driver struck her from behind. He briefly passed out, came to, and drove off after having killed the young girl. The crash threw Cari’s body 125 feet.

Four days later, Candace Lightner, Cari’s grieving mother, founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in her home, while at her kitchen table with family and friends. Before MADD, there were little to no legal consequences for driving while intoxicated.  Her organization transformed American attitudes about drunk driving and successfully fought for stricter laws across the country.

But this was not the first exposure to this type of senseless tragedy for Candy.  Nor was it the first tragic killing by that driver on the sunny May afternoon.

Candy was born on May 30, 1946, in Pasadena, California, where she graduated from high school. After attending college in Sacramento, she married Steve Lightner and had three children. They, like millions of baby-boomers, settled into suburban America, focused on raising a family, working and living the American dream.

Soon after having her children, Candy had her first experience with a drunk driver. A drunken driver rear-ended Candy’s car when her daughter Serena was 18 months old. The crash injured Serena. Six years later, an impaired driver ran over her son Travis. He had many broken bones and other injuries, was in a coma, and had permanent brain damage. Tranquilizers had impaired the driver who injured Travis, and she had no license. Yet she got no ticket.

A repeat drunk driver committed this latest crime on Candy’s sweet child, Cari.  As if her experiences with intoxicated drivers and her children weren’t enough, what Candy soon discovered haunted her. The driver that killed Cari was free on bail for a hit and run drunken driving crash only two days earlier. Killing Cari was his fifth drunk driving offense in four years.

Candy discovered the offender would probably not spend any time in jail for his crime. (Although, eventually he did.) “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead,” the angry mother said. Something had to happen, and Candy set her mind to a solution.

Before Candy Lightner’s crusade, people didn’t take intoxication, including Driving While Intoxicated, seriously. Lightner’s insightful approach was to put human faces on the victims of drunk drivers. Statistics weren’t simply a collection of numbers. Instead, each number represented a real person. Each such death led to a circle of people who grieved for their tragic loss. She helped people realize that deaths caused by drunk driving were not an acceptable inevitability.

Her organization’s goal was two-fold. The first is to raise public awareness of the serious nature of DWI. The second is to promote tough legislation against the crime. She went on a campaign for hearts and souls. She went on television shows. She spoke before the US Congress. She addressed professional and business groups. She worked tirelessly for years to change public attitudes, modify judicial behavior, and promote tough new legislation.

The logic and emotional impact of Lightner’s message led to a dramatic change in public attitudes toward DWI. It had previously been, according to Candy, the only acceptable form of homicide. It eventually became socially unacceptable.

However, in post-war America, where suburban sprawl started, families began to acquire multiple automobiles.  Americans were creating wealth and attitudes on drinking and drug use were changing.  The crime of DWI was common.

Candy addressed a serious problem and a cultural mindset. “Judges do it. Juries do it. District attorneys do it. So you’re dealing with a crime that is not considered a crime by society,” she often said. “In my case, I was the first victim to speak out in a public way and I was able to garner the attention of the media, and through the media, then the public.  People began to look at it from a different perspective. Instead of looking at the criminal and thinking ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ what I hope to do is educate them so they would look at myself or other victims and say, ‘Hey, there but for the grace of God could go my child or my spouse.’ That perspective shift has changed the way Americans view driving under the influence."

The group attracted the attention of the United States Congress. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) did not like the fact that youth in New Jersey could easily travel to New York to purchase alcoholic beverages, circumventing New Jersey's law restricting consumption to those 21 years old and older.  Candy’s efforts led to President Ronald Reagan appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving in 1982. Soon, over 400 drunk driving laws passed across the country.

Ms. Lightner also founded We Save Lives and serves as its president. It is an influential group in the U.S. fighting the 3D’s of Drunk, Drugged, and Distracted Driving. She continues to make a difference in reducing traffic crashes and saving lives in America today.

The same year of Cari’s death, more people died on our roadways thanks to drunk drivers than the number of people who died in war. By the 20th anniversary of MADD’s founding, alcohol-related fatalities had dropped nearly 40 percent.

Despite what tragedy may come your way and what culture seemingly dictates, there are opportunities to make a difference, create awareness and change behaviors -- if you are persistent and passionate.

And that is why, Legacy Matters...


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