Penalties for drunk driving have not stopped the plague of highway deaths.

Mike Ditka, coach of the NFL’s championship football team, the Chicago Bears, and idol of teenagers across Illinois, was arrested and convicted of drunken driving just after his team won a great victory over the San Francisco 49ers. His arrest symbolizes the basic problem of drunken driving in America today. All too often drunk drivers, like Mike Ditka, are nice guys who drink, and once in a while drink too much; then they may get arrested. They may even cause a fatal accident.

How Serious A Problem?

A drunken person is a hazard to himself and others. And the results are devastating. Drunken drivers kill 25,000 people each year. They injure or maim perhaps 700,000 more. And who knows how many hundred thousand are killed or injured by legally sober drivers with judgment impaired by lesser amounts of alcohol?

How does alcohol cause accidents? It is a depressant that acts on one’s judgment. The drinker gets an expansive feeling of well-being and imagines himself in complete control. Tests show that most people with a high level of alcohol in their blood have more confidence in their ability to drive well than they do when they are sober. And a wide-based study in Michigan showed that anyone who drinks is from three-to-four times more liable to have an accident than someone who does not.

Teenagers present a special problem. Seventy percent drink alcoholic beverages, and one out of five admits that he drives while intoxicated. No wonder 4,000 teenagers die each year as a direct result of drunken driving. Alcohol is now the leading cause of death among youth between 15 and 24. And deaths from drunken driving account for nearly twice as many teenage deaths as any other cause. Also, a study by the National Public Service Institute shows that one-half of all teens involved in alcohol-related accidents were, by blood-level concentration, legally sober—but in practical terms, judgment-impaired.

Solutions That Fall Short

What shall we do about these devastating consequences of drunken driving, especially among teenagers?

Weeks ago, before carefully studying this issue, I supported a straightforward program to deal with drunken drivers: On first offense, take away their driver’s licenses for at least a year; on second offense, pop them in jail for ten days—or for a year, if necessary. Make punishments swift, certain, and hard. As for teenage drunken driving, across the nation raise the legal age for purchase of alcoholic beverages to 21.

Article continues below

Unfortunately, these remedies have all proved inadequate to solve the problem. They have been tried; most help for a short time, but their permanent effect is not so clear, and in any case, they come nowhere near solving the problem of death on the highway.

Why? Partly because, as statistics prove, any particular drunk will rarely be caught, so fear of law ceases to be an effective deterrent. Usually the person who has been drinking finds himself in a situation with no apparent way to get home except by driving. He is too embarrassed to admit in front of his peers that he is incapable of handling his own affairs. And the drug has given him a false sense of omni-competence. Then, of course, he knows chances are very high that he will make it home without either arrest or serious accident. He always has. So he gets into his car and drives away.

Some statistics show that only one in 2,000 who drive while intoxicated will be pulled over. And even with the most thorough police control and rigorous administration, the figure rarely rises to more than one in 200.

Yet, all too often those who escape arrest do not live to get home. Every year 25,000 to 30,000 do not—including 4,000 teens.

The problem is endemic to our society. We are a pleasure-loving people. And we live in a culture dependent on the automobile for both pleasure and business. People are selfish enough to be unwilling to forego what they deem legitimate pleasure, in order to protect others. “I drink moderately,” is the usual response. “Why should I cut a legitimate pleasure out of my life because of a few who can’t restrain their appetites?”

Unworkable Alternatives

Is there, then, nothing we can do that will work—nothing, at least, at a price we are willing to pay? Conceivably we could walk, or use public transportation in certain highly concentrated metropolitan areas. But for most of the nation, this is unfeasible without forfeiting our twentieth-century American culture.

Then, too, we could give up drinking and return to prohibition. But the vast majority of American citizens are unwilling to do this.

Root Answer: An Abiding Concern

For my part, I know what I shall do: I shall continue to abstain altogether from alcoholic beverages, because then I know I shall never kill or maim a child by my drunken driving.

But by no means is total abstinence the sum total of my duty. One-third of those who profess to be evangelical even by the most strict sort of definition choose to drink moderately and commit themselves never to drink before driving. They reflect the position of the vast majority of other responsible citizens (though once in a while this group may drink too much).

Article continues below

Here is the fundamental need: a deep concern by all, and a strong commitment to do something. Our attitude should not be vindictive, but one of a helping concern for the 25,000 whom drunk drivers kill each year, the 700,000 they injure, and the additional hundreds of thousands injured by legally sober but alcohol-impaired drivers.

A Potpourri Of Actions To Take

We need to battle against drunken driving on all the fronts of our society. We need to be committed more fully to the current research into discovering a chemical pill to counteract the effects of alcohol on the human brain. We need to perfect an inexpensive gadget that will prevent an intoxicated person from starting a car. We need roadblocks to administer breath tests for alcohol along our busy highways, especially from 7 or 8 P.M. until 4 A.M. We need strict laws with mandatory punishment. We need all sorts of educational programs from lower grade school on through to adulthood.

A study just issued by the United States Department of Transportation surveyed the results in all the states that have raised or lowered the drinking age in recent years and compared them with the situation in other states. The data indicate that raising the drinking age to 21 reduced the deaths of teenagers by 13 percent. If all states adopted the change, 500 teenagers now killed each year by drunken drivers would be saved.

To summarize, first we must avoid unrealistic expectations, or the inevitable disillusionment will foster collapse of the will to do anything. Second, I personally favor abstinence; refusal to drive after drinking is an alternative for some. At root, we must come to a deep concern and strong commitment to do what we can. We can significantly reduce highway death and injury traceable to drinking.

Twenty-five thousand dead, perhaps another million injured—this must stop!


When human beings reach and fail, it is Certain they will end up huddled in a circle like Job’s friends, asking ultimate, theological questions. And so it was 100 days ago when seven Americans aboard the shuttle Challenger reached for the stars and suddenly vanished in a pillar of fire and smoke.

There were immediate, and obvious, religious reverberations. At a memorial service, President Reagan was explicitly theological: “We can find consolation only in faith,” he said, “for we know in our hearts that you who flew so high and so proud now make your home beyond the stars, safe in God’s promise of eternal life.”

Article continues below

Nothing could have stopped the country’s ritual, sacramental outpouring of grief. After the explosion, Atlanta motorists switched on their headlights in tribute. The floodlights illuminating the Empire State Building were darkened. Illinois residents burned their porch lights in mourning. Along the Florida coast, 20,000 people raised flashlights into the unanswering night sky.

Looking back at January’s accident, we can now see the space program was religious from the start. After all, a nation does not really need to hurl mothers and fathers and schoolteachers outside Earth’s orbit (and spend billions of dollars) to discover Tang. There are deeper and truer, if more elusive, reasons.

Melvin Kranzberg, historian of technology at Georgia Tech, sounded more like a historian of religion after the shuttle accident. “We’ve got to go on,” he commented. “Man’s most abiding quest is the effort to understand himself in relation to the cosmos.” And journalist Hugh Sidey noted that President Reagan “has understood intuitively that people must have a challenge that takes them out of the despair that crowds every day. There must be a new frontier beckoning, promising some new hope.”

This beckoning, new frontier sounds suspiciously like the Promised Land—or even heaven itself. All of us, said Calvin, are homo religiosus, “man the religious one.” We can be certain that much of the God-talk in response to January’s tragedy was the blind groping of a vague and diluted civil religion. But we can be just as certain that the January ceremonies—and the nation’s robust reaffirmation that space exploration has “got to go on”—reveal a higher significance.

The risky search of outer space may carry pre-evangelistic overtones. The gospel testifies to One from “Outer Space” who came to fill our inner space. God may use our patient witness to reveal him to some who, so far, search in vain.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.