MADD at 20: Still a Force for Change


When a bereaved mother launched a national campaign against drunk driving in 1980, no one expected that alcohol-related fatalities would drop 40% over the next 20 years. Yet Mothers Against Drunk Driving has helped achieve that and more, becoming a potent symbol for other advocacy groups. In this first of two stories on motherhood and activism, Southern California Living examines MADD’s accomplishments, growing pains and future as the organization celebrates its 20th anniversary. Monday, two women whose children were shot last summer at the North Valley Jewish Community Center explain why they are helping to organize the Million Mom March, a grass-roots effort to change gun laws that borrows many of MADD’s tactics and hopes to match its success.


On May 3, 1980, Candace Lightner learned one of her twin daughters had died after a drunk driver out on bail struck the girl from behind on a sidewalk. The death of 13-year-old Cari in Fair Oaks, near Sacramento, was one of an estimated 2,500 alcohol-related traffic fatalities that year in California, and 27,000 in the United States. Yet, this mother’s particular outrage ignited a model grass-roots movement that inspired changes in the laws, attitudes and--most significantly--the behavior of an entire nation.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving turns 20 this year in a strikingly different era: Alcohol-related fatalities are down 40% since the group’s inception; the minimum drinking age has been raised to 21 nationwide; most states have laws that revoke the licenses of drunk drivers; hotel parties have replaced happy hours; and the phrases “designated driver” and “sobriety checkpoints” are known to almost every high school student.


MADD gave a face and a voice to victims and thus “transformed the landscape of drunk driving,” said Chuck Hurley, a longtime officer of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit public service group. “All the experts said drunk driving wasn’t something that could be dealt with effectively. It wasn’t until we as a society heard and understood the voice of the victim that all this progress occurred.”

MADD, headquartered in Irving, Texas, remains a force of considerable size and scope with 600 local affiliates in 50 states and an annual budget of $40 million.

But it too has changed. The pioneers have moved on, media attention has died down. The group, humbled by financial controversy, political infighting and the embarrassing spectre of two early leaders joining the payrolls of alcohol trade groups, has regrouped and retooled its mission.

“MADD is in a growth stage right now,” said executive director Dean Wilkerson. Aiming to further reduce traffic deaths, MADD is pushing new programs to crack down on hard-core offenders, and has expanded its mission to eliminate underage drinking. Although it lost a bid in 1998 to lower the legal blood-alcohol content from .10 to .08 on a national basis, its members continue to lobby for lowering levels in the majority of states that have not done so.

Adversaries in the beverage industry contend MADD has gone too far in targeting social drinkers, and is embarked on a “holy war” that could lead to new attempts at prohibition.

“The question we ask [the adversaries] is if they would want their children driving in a carpool when the adult driving has impaired vision and coordination. I think the answer is no,” said Cathy Hickey, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a partner of MADD in a drive to lower alcohol-related fatalities to no more than 11,000 by 2005. “As long as we still have almost 16,000 people killed in alcohol-related crashes, there will be a need for MADD.”


Beyond the group’s legislative agenda, Hickey said members have unselfishly turned their personal tragedies into triumphs. “What’s so admirable about MADD is that the majority of people are actually victims of drunk driving crashes. They don’t want other families to go through what they’ve gone through.”


MADD was forged from the fury of one grieving, frustrated and, by most accounts, difficult mother.

In the weeks following her daughter’s death, Lightner, a single mother of three and real estate agent found out the man who killed her daughter had a string of previous drunk-driving arrests with few consequences. “He was sent to rehab; he didn’t go. It was a joke,” she recalled. After some initial research, she found out there were hundreds, thousands of people like herself, forced to accept a loved one’s death by a drunk driver as an accident rather than a crime.

“Drunk driving was the only socially acceptable form of homicide,” Lightner said. “Everyone was the potential drunk driver. Nobody stopped to think they could be the victim.”

Seeking Justice for the Victims

In the early ‘80s, traffic-safety experts were well aware that 27,000 people were killed annually in alcohol-related crashes, but drunk driving had come to be considered “a problem you had to live with,” Hurley said.

Lightner didn’t think so. Unusually driven and tenacious, she had incorporated her new organization by September of 1980. “My immediate need was to see [the driver] punished. To see justice,” she said. “The only way I could do it was to make this a major issue.


“I didn’t understand all the hard work involved. I didn’t understand the odds we were up against. That worked in my favor. I could go forward being dumb and naive and idealistic.”

The timing was advantageous. The public had become health conscious. Alcohol was increasingly defined as a drug, and sales were starting to decline. What’s more, said Christopher Foreman, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “you’re talking about a middle-class group, which has a target that no one will defend.”

Mary Hawkesworth, director of the Center of American Women and Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., said, “Part of the smartness of their strategy was to focus on kids who were killed by drunk drivers. There were no complexities of being adults and being guilty. These were innocent kids who . . . had their lives snuffed out by drunk drivers.”

Lightner proved a dynamic and charismatic public speaker. She researched and studied the issues, the science, the law. She never cried in public; she thought no one would take her seriously.

The media loved her story and her cause. According to her colleague and friend Susan LeBrun Green, who lives in Roseville, outside Sacramento, “You could fill a room with all the media publications that Candy was in, in the beginning.”

Before long, Green said, strangers were contacting them and sending money. Working out of an empty bedroom in her home, using typewriters, Lightner and Green learned as they went, doing their homework and developing a strategy on national, state and local levels. Lightner researched the structure of nonprofit groups and contacted other victims, notably Cindy Lamb, an activist mother in Maryland whose daughter was paralyzed after being hit by a drunk driver. Lamb started another chapter.


Lightner said she worked around the clock, obsessively, burying her grief in the cause.

Meeting With the Governor

The first sign of progress came in fall of 1980.

Lightner had been trying in vain to meet with then-Gov. Jerry Brown to set up a task force. “Nobody would give me the time of day,” she said. She had also been pushing for a national presidential commission. In October, she held a press conference in Washington, D.C., and a reporter asked her whether she had had any luck yet with Brown. “I said absolutely not. Of course that hit the press.” A week later, she was meeting with aides to discuss the task force. They said Brown wanted to see her. “He said, ‘I’ve heard about you from everybody. Whatever you want, you’ve got it,’ ” she recalled. Lightner cried then.

By 1982, a presidential commission also had been formed that held hearings across the country and recommended raising the drinking age to 21 and revoking the licenses of drunk drivers. During the ‘80s, all statehouses raised the drinking age under threat of losing federal highway construction funds; financial incentives were applied to persuade states to adopt mandatory administrative license-revocation laws. So far, 42 states have done so.

MADD had become so powerful that U.S. Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), who chaired the public works committee where sanctions were proposed, was known to precede his votes by asking, “How do the mothers feel?” Hurley said, “If the mothers were for it, he was for it. If he was for it, it passed.”

The two actions--making punishment appear swift, terrible and certain for drinking drivers, and making alcohol harder to obtain for those under 21--are most often cited for leading to the widespread changes in attitudes and behavior that ultimately reduced fatalities.

The grass-roots movement continued to expand, partly because of a strict and narrow focus on two goals, MADD’s Wilkerson said. Despite numerous requests to endorse other causes, the group held steadfastly to its main course: to stop drunk driving and support victims of the crime, he said.

Mindful of the fate of prohibition, members were also careful not to target drinkers or drinking itself. In 1984, they changed the group’s name from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That year, they grew to 350 chapters.


Lightner, the subject of a made-for-TV movie in 1983, had gained a reputation as an energetic and strident leader, someone who could talk to members of Congress. But inside the organization, her abrasive demands for professionalism and perfection struck some as arrogant and egocentric.

“My purpose was to do something about drunk driving,” Lightner said, “to get the drunk drivers off the road and save lives and I did. Obviously, I’m not going to do that by being sweet and nice all the time.”

A Move to New Offices

In 1982, she moved the headquarters of MADD to a Dallas suburb, a central location for the growing affiliates and fund-raising activities.

When the organization “opened big, beautiful offices” in Texas, Barbara Bloomberg, founder of the Los Angeles chapter of MADD, said, “It was disconcerting. . . . I understood they needed to raise money. I also understood we needed to keep going in the local chapter and we were seeing less and less of the money.” Some local chapters nearly closed because of financial crises.

Bloomberg, who helped pioneer the movement locally when her 16-year-old son was killed in 1980 by a drunk driver, said she could see the writing on the wall. “It became worse and worse. I saw it [MADD] was headed for a major nonprofit fund-raising organization rather than a small group of grass-roots individuals working to prevent drinking and driving,” she said. In 1985, Bloomberg left MADD and joined Friday Night Live, a California program that trains teens to help peers lead healthy lifestyles.

Meanwhile, Lightner was feuding with a new board over her salary demands, management styles and rumors of inappropriate spending. She lost a power struggle in 1985 and left the organization. Now 54, Lightner lives in Alexandria, Va., where she works as an organizational consultant.


Some called it a case of “founder’s syndrome,” common to nonprofit groups, in which an inspirational leader is shunted aside when the organization grows large enough to require professional management. At the time, Lightner told the press she felt she was being “punished” for MADD’s success.

Some old-timers felt a loss, Green said. Others were relieved.


Critics also questioned the way the new management raised and spent money. Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said it appeared that business interests had taken over, with most of the money going to telemarketing. “There was concern that the telemarketer was calling the shots within the organization.”

MADD has since resolved its financial relationship with its affiliates and decreased its reliance on telemarketing. From a onetime high of 60%, the portion of MADD’s total revenues spent on telemarketing fell to 12% in 1998, Borochoff said. This year, Wilkerson said only 6% will be spent on telemarketing.

The organization also has struggled to combat the public impression that Lightner still represents MADD. In 1994, members were stunned to learn she had been hired by the American Beverage Institute, a trade organization, to lobby members of Congress and state legislators and to speak and write against reducing the legal blood-alcohol limit from .10 to .08.

Rick Berman, general counsel to the trade group, said he had known Lightner as a realistic person who “could see both sides of an issue . . . I called her up and said, ‘I don’t know how this will strike you.’ I asked her if she wanted to do this. She found the thought fascinating.”

Lightner said she agreed that reducing the legal limit was “a waste of time and going after the wrong people.” Also, she said she had always wanted to be a lobbyist and live in Washington, D.C.


To some of MADD’s pioneers like Bloomberg, Lightner had committed “the ultimate betrayal . . . She was betraying her own daughter and the organization she founded.”

Adding to the shock, Hurley said Cindy Lamb, too, had gone to work for a group of national beer wholesalers. Hurley blames the alcohol groups for “taking advantage of Candy and Cindy Lamb’s need for income.”

Lightner received a salary of less than six figures, Berman said. Because of the criticism, she quit after less than a year, he said.

Lightner consults now for groups whose causes she believes in: youth organizations, animal rights groups, anti-discrimination causes for Arab Americans.

Green said she had dinner with Lightner two weeks ago when she returned for a visit to the Sacramento area. “She looked vibrant and healthy,” Green said. “It made me feel good to think she’s moved on in her life.”

Getting Through Grieving Process

Today, Lightner upsets devoted MADD members when she publicly faults the organization for creating “professional victims.” While MADD and similar groups “have wonderful ways of helping people through the justice system, they do not help them through the grieving process,” she said.


In her case, she says she was so busy building MADD, she wasn’t able to adequately grieve her daughter’s death at the time; nor did she pay enough attention to her other children. “They lost a sister and a mother,” she said.

Looking back, she said the cost to her family was too high. Even though she founded what John Moulden, president of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving, calls “the most effective citizen activist group the country’s ever seen,” and though her efforts helped save at least 110,000 lives, Candace Lightner said she wouldn’t do it again.


Having made inroads with social drinkers, activists are now down to dealing with the practicing alcoholics and problem drinkers unfazed by laws or social scorn.

To celebrate MADD’s 20th anniversary, the group is launching new programs targeting repeat offenders, drivers with high blood-alcohol levels, and convicted drunk drivers who drive with suspended licenses.

MADD also continues to push for lowering the illegal blood alcohol concentration to .08 in all states. Seventeen states, including California, have adopted the lowered levels.

The Beverage Institute’s Berman applauds MADD for targeting the hard-core drinkers but opposes the move to lower the legal blood-alcohol concentration amounts. “The game they’re involved in is to continually move the goal posts.”


After the U.S. Senate passed a federal .08 bill in 1998, the House, lobbied by the beverage industry, killed the proposal, handing MADD its first big defeat.

MADD recently amended its mission to include a third goal: the prevention of underage drinking.

“Alcohol is the No. 1 killer of our youth--6 1/2 times more than all illicit drugs,” said Millie Webb, who took over as president of MADD this year.

While adults are still told not to drink and drive, she said, those under 21 are told not to drink at all. Teenagers who received mixed messages have been shown to be more likely to drive after drinking, to be in a car with someone drinking or to develop alcohol dependency in later life, she said. The earlier people start drinking, the more likely they are to become drunk drivers, she said.

MADD leaders are also concerned about the rising rates of college binge drinkers, up from 19.8% in 1993 to 22.7% last year. The rate of abstainers has also gone up, from 15.4% to 19.2% in the same period.

The group’s new mission statement also notes that corporations, foundations and government agencies have a strong desire to be associated with young people and prevention efforts and that grants have increased in direct proportion to the emphasis on youth.


In September, MADD will sponsor a national youth summit in Washington, D.C., where teenagers from each of the 435 congressional districts will meet to come up with solutions to the problems of underage and binge drinking. A Youth in Action program encourages teenage activists to enforce underage and zero-tolerance drinking laws, which prohibit those under 21 to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in their blood. A new college commission has also been formed by MADD to address the problems.

Webb said her family was a victim of a drunk driver with a .08 blood alcohol level 28 years ago in Franklin, Tenn. When the man rear-ended their car on a Saturday night, it exploded in flames. Webb’s daughter and nephew died of burns, she and her husband were burned over 70% of their bodies and their unborn daughter was blinded.

The driver, unhurt, received two years’ probation and was arrested again later for drunk driving.

‘There’s No Way I Will Ever Be Able to Forget’

As both a bereaved parent and a victim, Webb said her main goal is to educate the public about MADD’s victim services. “MADD is the premier victim-assistance organization in America.”

Until she became involved in MADD 10 years after the crash, Webb said she had never found outside understanding that what had happened to her was wrong. At the time of the crash, society did not consider either her or her family as victims, she said. She was not allowed to speak at the trial.

“They say forgiving is forgetting. It’s not the case in MADD,” she said. “There’s no way I will ever be able to forget. In MADD I learned I didn’t have to. In sharing my story, I can give hope to somebody else.”



Mothers Against Drunk Driving may be reached at (214) 744-6233 or (800) GET-MADD for the victim hotline. The Web site is:

* Lynn Smith may be reached at


Some Facts

* Alcohol continues to be the leading factor in U.S. motor vehicle deaths.

* Only 7% of the nation’s motor vehicle crashes involve alcohol use, but nearly 39% of fatal crashes do.

* In fatal crashes, the percentage of drivers who were intoxicated (blood alcohol content of .10 or greater) decreased from 25% in 1988 to 18% in 1998.

* 15,935 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes in the U.S. in 1998, an average of one death every 33 minutes.

* More than 2,300 anti-drunk driving laws have been passed since 1980 by federal and state governments.


* About three in every 10 Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives.

--U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration statistics, 1999, posted on the MADD Web site (