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Herbert Moskowitz dies at 87; pioneer in drunk driving research

The experimental psychologist's work raised public consciousness about drunk driving and helped lead to stricter laws against it.

By Rebecca Trounson, Los Angeles Times

December 17, 2012

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Herbert Moskowitz, an experimental psychologist whose pioneering research on the effects of alcohol and drugs on driving helped produce standardized field sobriety tests and pushed policymakers to set lower legal limits for intoxicated driving in the U.S. and elsewhere, has died. He was 87.

A former professor at UCLA and Cal State L.A., Moskowitz died Nov. 21 at his home in Encino of complications from leukemia, his son, Ivan, said.

With a background in physics as well as psychology, Moskowitz devised rigorous experiments, including the early use of driving simulators, that demonstrated drivers' growing impairment as they consumed increasing amounts of alcohol. His research found that even a single drink, a much smaller amount than previously believed, could significantly slow the brain and raise drivers' risk of a crash.

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"His work really helped raise public consciousness, in the U.S. and globally, about the potential of alcohol and drugs to affect traffic safety," said Richard Blomberg, a transportation safety expert whose firm, Dunlap & Associates, often competed with Moskowitz and his colleagues for research grants.

"His research and his voice — he was very persistent, very articulate — elevated this issue and made people pay attention," Blomberg said. Partly as a result of Moskowitz's efforts, Blomberg and others said, the standard across the United States for driving under the influence is now a blood-alcohol level of 0.08%, and some states impose penalties at lower levels.

But in the 1960s, as Moskowitz began his career, there were few specific legal restrictions on drinking and driving in the U.S. beyond a general prohibition that people should not get behind the wheel when intoxicated. Although it was widely understood that alcohol use could negatively affect motor vehicle operation, there was little scientific evidence to document the specific impairments it caused.

Moskowitz devoted himself to understanding the relationship between blood-alcohol levels and skills related to driving, developing sensitive behavioral tests that measured vigilance, rates of information processing and reaction times, among other factors. He was especially well-known for studies showing the effects of alcohol on tasks that require divided attention, commonplace in driving.

In a 2000 study funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one of many he published on the subject, Moskowitz found that skills requiring such mental shifts begin to degrade at levels well below 0.05% blood-alcohol level.

"He was just a brilliant thinker," said Allan F. Williams, an authority on alcohol-impaired driving who retired in 2004 as chief scientist of the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "He had the ability to see things that others couldn't and came up with ways to show the effects of alcohol on divided attention, which can significantly affect performance. He was a pioneer."

Through the Southern California Research Institute, a nonprofit he founded, Moskowitz and his colleagues also conducted research that led to the uniform three-test battery of field sobriety exams in use by police departments across the U.S.

An expert witness in numerous court cases, he also studied the effects on driving and other skills of marijuana, cocaine and prescription drugs, including antihistamines and antidepressants.

Born in New York City on Jan. 22, 1925, Herbert Moskowitz was raised in the Bronx and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. He earned a bachelor's degree in physics from UC Berkeley in 1948, then a master's and a doctorate in experimental psychology from UCLA.

Applying for faculty positions at UCLA and Cal State L.A., he was offered — and quickly accepted — both. He remained at both institutions throughout his career, retiring in 1985. "He would go and teach at Cal State, with a bow tie in his pocket so he could put it on for his lectures, then head to his lab at UCLA," Ivan Moskowitz said.

Moskowitz was also known to friends and family for interests and knowledge that ranged well beyond his professional life. Good food, especially French, and fine wines were abiding passions, but so were classical music, Polish tapestries, Oriental carpets and electrical engineering, among other subjects.

He also was generous with his knowledge, even during his final illness. His son, who is planning a trip to Amsterdam, discovered recently that his father had been researching restaurants in that city for him to try. Several pages of possibilities were printed and waiting for him on his father's desk.

In addition to his son, Moskowitz's survivors include Selma, his wife of 63 years, and a granddaughter, Alma.

A memorial service is planned for January in Los Angeles.

rebecca.trounson@latimes.com