Bill Bronrott was a lawmaker before he had the title.
Thirty years ago at age 25, he was press secretary for then-Congressman Michael D. Barnes of Maryland.
In that job, he became a shaper of public attitude.
He helped anguished loved ones transform America’s attitude toward drunken driving. Until that shameful indulgence was challenged by Congress, driving drunk in America was a virtually unpunished crime. Repeat offenders were tolerated as in no other area of anti-social behavior. Driving drunk was one of the nation’s basic freedoms, in effect.
Bronrott worked for tougher drunk-driving laws and sharper sanctions. For the last 12 years, he did this work as a member of the House of Delegates from Montgomery County. He recently resigned to take a job at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Mobilizing public opinion
Bronrott’s quest began in Barnes’ office with a sophisticated public relations campaign. They rallied allies from virtually every state.
An increasingly distinguished cast of public officials urged people to see how devastatingly wrongheaded they were in tolerating those who drove under the influence. The mobilizing of public opinion, Bronrott says, leveraged change — and remains the key to real reform, which is still needed.
Bronrott was the largely invisible facilitator, organizer and adviser. He and his boss had been looking for a signature initiative, something the congressman would be identified with. They saw many possibilities on the conveyor belt of issues, but they chose to confront drunk driving — not a popular target by any means. Drivers, lawyers and judges were not on their side.
They enlisted two women who could make agonizingly clear how devastating drunk driving could be. In 1979, Cindi Lamb and her daughter, Laura, were hit head-on by a repeat drunk driver on Route 26 near the Frederick County-Carroll County line. Cindi recovered. Laura became the nation’s youngest paraplegic. She was 5 months old.
The nascent campaign needed a presence in the West as well.
From Fair Oaks, Calif., came the story of Candy Leightner, whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver while walking to a church carnival.
Barnes and Bronrott, joined by Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island and Rep. Robert Matsui, held a press conference to announce legislation that would tie the granting of federal highway money to raising the drinking age from 18 to 21. Laura Lamb, in her specially designed wheelchair, was there in the Rayburn House Office Building.
This was the national kickoff for an organization called Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“A movement was born,” says Bronrott. “In some ways the nation was never the same. There was a sea change literally in front our eyes. … A neglected national disgrace could no longer be ignored.”
MADD began to work on many fronts. It moved to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. As leverage, Congress threatened to withhold federal money from states that refused to comply. Driving-under-the-influence deaths dropped by 50 percent. The decision to raise the drinking age to 21 has saved an estimated 1,000 lives a year.
Continuing the effort
When he became a member of the Maryland House of Delegates in 1998, Bronrott went to work on lowering the blood alcohol level from .10 to .08 for drunk driving. Even the slightest amount of alcohol can impair driving, but the effort to reduce the legal limit was, as always, a tough sell. Finally, it happened.
At the end of this year’s session, Maryland legislators failed to pass a bill that would have mandated ignition interlock devices — which determine if a driver’s blood alcohol level is acceptable before a car can be started — for those convicted of drunk driving. Opponents said the sanction should come later. Bronrott asked, why wait?
“[Studies show] only one of every 200 to 1,000 drunk drivers actually ends up in an apprehension. So when someone is caught, odds are they have been out there drunk one or more times,” he says, adding that sanctions should be imposed immediately.
“Why wait until they’ve killed someone?” he asks.
Continued progress, he says, “will take leadership, a certain vision about the communities we want to live in.”
He says he’ll be looking for that vision at the U.S. Department of Transportation.
C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His e-mail address is email@example.com.