One for the Road

Drunk Driving Since 1900

by Barron H. Lerner

One for the Road

Hardcover, 218 pages, Johns Hopkins University Press, List Price: $24.95 | purchase

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Barron Lerner explores the history of drunk driving in America and the legislative efforts to stop it.

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Excerpt: One For The Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900

At times, drunk driving cases achieved national attention. One such example was the sad story of Margaret Mitchell, the charming Atlantan whose 1936 novel Gone with the Wind had sold eight million copies and been made into an Oscar-winning motion picture by the time she was hit by a car on August 11, 1949. The 43-year-old Mitchell was crossing her beloved Peachtree Street, which she had made famous in her book, heading to the theater with her husband, advertising executive John R. Marsh. Suddenly, a car going 50 miles per hour in a 25-mph zone, driven by 29-year-old Hugh D. Gravitt, an off-duty taxi driver driving his private car, hit Mitchell, dragging her some fifteen feet.

It was readily apparent that the injuries were grave. Mitchell was not responsive. A disturbing and graphic Associated Press photograph distributed to newspapers across the country showed an unconscious Mitchell lying face down in the street in front of onlookers prior to the arrival of an ambulance. Mitchell was taken to Atlanta's famed Grady Memorial Hospital, where doctors initially diagnosed her with a brain concussion, leg injuries, and possible internal injuries. Two of the South's most prominent brain surgeons consulted on her case and concluded that she was too sick for an operation. Although newspapers reported some improvement in her condition on August 12, the famed author deteriorated four days later. She was rushed to the operating room but died on the table, presumably of a brain hemorrhage.

The Mitchell story was big news, covered on the front pages of newspapers across the country. Not only was Mitchell beloved, especially in the South, but it turned out that Gravitt had twenty-two prior traffic infractions since 1944, including seven for speeding and five for "reckless driving." Moreover, he admitted to having drunk beer at some point before the accident, although he later insisted it had been only one beer four hours earlier. The arresting officers later stated that they had smelled alcohol on Gravitt's breath, but apparently his blood alcohol level was not checked. Local officials initially charged Gravitt with speeding, drunken driving, and driving on the wrong side of the road.

Editorials and letters appearing in the Atlanta Journal, the Atlanta Constitution, and other newspapers across the country expressed astonishment and dismay that Gravitt had previously received only slaps on the wrist and had thus simply continued driving. The Constitution printed a list of Gravitt's past traffic offenses on August 13, 1949. The paper's editorial page concurrently posed two questions, asking why his license had never been revoked and how he had simply been allowed to pay the same small fi nes over and over. "This man," the writer concluded, "has habitually endangered lives for four years." Ten days later, the Journal published the same list along with the names of the judges who had continually freed Gravitt rather than taking away his license. "An astonishing angle to this story of death in the American streets," wrote an editorialist in Texas, "was that the accused driver had a police record of 22 arrests for traffic law violations." Although it was never specified whether Gravitt's numerous offenses had occurred when he was driving his cab, some writers nevertheless called for a crackdown on "reckless taxi driving" — ironic, perhaps, as future anti–drunk driving campaigns would strongly urge inebriated bar and restaurant patrons to call for cabs.

Certain members of the public were considerably angrier. Interestingly, while some of these writers took Gravitt to task, most leveled their criticism at the police and judges for excessive leniency and at the general public for its apathy. "Atlanta has just committed another murder," read a typical letter to the Journal. "Margaret Mitchell was killed," New York Sun columnist Dave Boone wrote, "as much by Police-Court prosecutors, Judges and automobile–law enforcement bureaus as by the actual driver of the auto that ran her down." Letters sent directly to John Marsh made similar points. "Atlanta must be seething with indignation," wrote a South Carolina lawyer, "at this useless extinction of a life so valuable." Anger piqued when a photograph of a jailed Gravitt and two grinning policemen was published in the September 19, 1949, issue of Life magazine. "I'd like to know," asked a New York woman, "what's so funny about having a record of 22 traffic violations and then being responsible for the death of one of the greatest writers?" Another correspondent to Life termed the image the "most contemptible picture I've ever seen."

The possibility that Gravitt was drunk generated special enmity. "Let's take effective action," urged an Atlanta Journal editorial, "against the innumerable drunken drivers who menace us all in their alcoholic daze." Journal columnist Pierce Harris mocked the common excuse "I just had a couple of beers," writing that "more and more space is required every day to tell about the people getting killed by drunken drivers." Harris also presaged anti–drunk driving activists in criticizing liquor advertising that proclaimed the "virtues of beer," especially to young people. The result, according to Harris: "more slaughtered citizens under spinning wheels." A reader of the Journal perceptively took its editors to task for printing both an anti–drunk driving editorial and liquor advertisements in the same issue. "Is the revenue received from these advertisements," the writer asked, "sufficient to compensate for the lives of our people who are maimed and killed by the stuff you advertise?"

Mitchell's was perhaps the first drunk driving death that had the potential to mobilize the entire country to take action on the problem. The Margaret Mitchell papers at the University of Georgia contain editorials from newspapers, such as the Spokane (WA) Review, the St. Charles (MO) Cosmo-Monitor, and the Pine Bluff (AR) Commercial, with headlines such as "Murder by Auto Must Be Stopped," "Margaret Mitchell Was Murdered," and "Drunk at the Wheel." Ned H. Dearborn, president of the National Safety Council, saw an opportunity as well, urging the public to care as much about drunk driving as it did contagious diseases such as typhoid fever. "It's time we quarantined traffic killers just as we quarantine disease carriers," he told the Associated Press.

Locally, several Georgians approached John Marsh with the idea of using his wife's name to spur measures to control drunken and otherwise reckless drivers. A Boy Scout leader from Forsyth, Georgia, upset not only at Mitchell's death but at the death of two local boys at the hands of a drunk driver, proposed a "Margaret Mitchell Minute," in which Americans would pause for one minute at noon on August 16, 1950, the one-year anniversary of Mitchell's death. Marsh agreed, and also approved the founding of the Margaret Mitchell Safety Foundation, a Georgia organization that sought to save lives and reduce injuries from traffic accidents through educational programs for secondary school and college students.

Mitchell's death also spurred one newspaper to produce what may have been the first investigative report into the problems of drunk driving. In December 1949, the Los Angeles Times ran a five-part series by a reporter, Bill Dredge. That the investigation took place in Los Angeles and California was no surprise. Beginning with Depression era workers in search of jobs and continuing into the war years, the population of California had dramatically increased. There were roughly 3.5 million people living in the state as of 1920; by 1950, this figure would triple, to over 10.5 million. The number of cars had increased commensurately. Los Angeles County, itself home to more than 4 million people by 1950, lacked an extensive public transportation system, meaning that city and suburban streets — and later a series of highways — were crammed with drivers and pedestrians.

"Drunk Driving Toll Highest in History" blared the front-page headline in the December 5, 1949, edition of the Times. Dredge went on to explain how police in Los Angeles expected to arrest 4,500 people for drunk driving in 1949, nearly double the total for 1939. But this figure still represented only a fraction of the city's drunken drivers, "usually those so drunk they lose control of their cars, cause accidents, block traffic or otherwise call public attention to their sodden plight." Moreover, Dredge reported, those arrested were generally "patted" through the courts with fines, probationary sentences, and generally only brief license suspensions.

This enormous leniency occurred even though there was a felony drunk driving law on the books. The problem, according to Dredge, was that the law was rarely used to its full extent. A survey conducted by the Times found that the local district attorney had pursued only 34 of 176 cases of drunk drivers originally charged with a felony and had obtained only 9 convictions. In the remaining 25 instances, as with the 142 cases not considered as felonies, the charges had either been dropped or lowered to lesser misdemeanors, even if they did not reflect what had actually happened. These included reckless driving, parking violations, bald tires, or violation of the city drunk ordinance, and carried fines of only $10 to $20. As a result, less than 6 percent of people charged with DWI ever went to jail. Moreover, even when prosecutors obtained DWI convictions, the guilty parties were likely to remain free. For example, there was only a 50 percent chance that people convicted of DWI three times would spend any time in jail.

One problem, Dredge reported, was the strict nature of the felony law, which required prosecutors to show that the defendant was drunk, was driving, was simultaneously guilty of a second driving offense, and had inflicted serious injury on another person. Meanwhile, earlier in 1949, the California state legislature had actually weakened the existing misdemeanor laws, overturning an earlier mandatory license suspension for people convicted of drunk driving. The result of this weak law enforcement, according to the newspaper, was that "two, three, four and up to 10-time drunk driving offenders are able to flout the law and drive on Southland highways, killing, maiming, wrecking and laughing at the law."

Hyperbolic? Perhaps, but Dredge supplemented his reporting with a vivid and horrifying case study of a man the paper unsubtly called "John Death." Over a ten-year period, this person, described as "a woodworker and a family man," regularly drove drunk despite having killed two people in 1938. After being released from prison in 1940, having served two years for manslaughter, he was arrested for drunk driving at least seven other times, including hit-and-runs and instances of resisting arrest and driving without a license. In several of these cases, John Death was released after only paying fines. At the time of the five-part series, he was evidently out of jail and free to drive. The explanation was "careless judges, thoughtless prosecutors, inaccurate filing systems and . . . pressures exerted by friends."

From One For The Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 by Barron Lerner. Copyright 2011 by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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