Vintage Drunk Driving PSA Shows How Baffled People Were

This is a pretty interesting anti-drunk driving commercial from the 1970s. What makes it interesting is that the ad is not telling people to avoid drinking and driving – it’s urging people to do something about the laws. But what?  The ones who made the ad aren’t even sure what needs to be done. What they did know was how to use good 1970s advertising techniques to stir people up.

The real push against drunk driving in the US began later, in the early 1980s with the formation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). That organization’s work began to rouse the public into action, and more important, to convince them that drunk driving was an aberration that needed to be fought and wiped out, not an ever-present affliction that must be tolerated.

That mindset hadn’t quite taken hold yet when this vintage drunk driving PSA was made – or at least, the advocates hadn’t figured out a solution to press for.

A word on the stats. The announcer states that, nearly 50 percent of traffic deaths involve a drunk.” Today that figure is about 30 percent. We can thank 35 or so years of activism and legislation for that. The announcer also makes the point that alcohol is a factor in about half of crashes despite the fact that less than 4 percent of drivers on the road are drunk.

That’s an important but very debatable statistic. The problem is, the definition of “drunk” varied from state to state back then, but for generations was around .15 BAC (blood alcohol concentration), about twice what it is today. By the time this ad appeared states were lowering limits to .10 and .08, but it wasn’t until 1998 that the federal government voted to withhold highway funds from states that did not lower their limit to .08. Even with that encouragement, the last of the 50 states, Delaware, didn’t fall into line until 2004.

Ultimately, then, the campaign that this PSA represented succeeded, though it took a lot of work from public safety advocates and legislators to focus upon real goals and reach them.

And by the way, the ad asks, “Why aren’t their licenses taken away before they kill someone?” As we know now, license suspension doesn’t work, as half to three-quarters of offenders with suspensions will drive anyway. The question should  have been, “Why don’t they have ignition interlocks installed before they kill someone?” But ignition interlocks hadn’t yet been invented. This PSA was searching for answers that wouldn’t exist for decades.