Candace Lynne Lightner (Candy Lightner) is best known as the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD. She was born on May 30, 1946 in Pasadena, California, where she graduated from high school. After attending American River College in Sacramento, she married Steve Lightner and had three children.
When Candy Lightner’s daughter Serena was 18 months old, Lightner’s car was hit from the rear by a drunken driver causing slight injury to Serena. Six years later, her son, Travis, was run over and very seriously injured. He suffered numerous broken bones and other injuries, was in a coma, and received permanent brain damage by an unlicensed driver who was impaired by tranquilizers when she injured him. In spite of her illegal behavior and its permanent consequences, she received no ticket.
On May 3, 1980, Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was walking in her residential neighborhood in Fair Oaks, California, on her way to a church carnival when she was struck from behind by a drunken driver who briefly passed out, then came to and drove off after having killed the young girl. Cari’s body had been thrown 125 feet and was so badly mutilated that her organs could not be donated.
The crime was committed by a repeat DWI offender who had been released on bail for a hit and run drunken driving crash only two days before he killed Cari, his fifth offense in four years.
Candy Lightner started the MADD in her den on May 7, 1980, four days after the tragedy and a day after Cari’s funeral. That’s when she discovered that the offender, who had been caught, would probably not receive any time in jail, much less any time in prison, for his crime. “I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead” Candy Lightner later wrote.
Originally called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), it was later changed to Mothers Against Drunk Driving on the recommendation of a consulting firm. The object of her organization was to raise public awareness of the serious nature of drunken driving and to promote tough legislation against the crime.
Before Candy Lightner’s crusade, intoxication, including drunken driving, was not taken seriously. Some comedians actually made a career of impersonating drunken people on stage. Intoxication was often used as an excuse for otherwise unacceptable behavior: “I didn’t know what I was doing — I was drunk.”
Lightner’s insightful approach was to put human faces on the victims of drunk drivers. Statistics weren’t simply a collection of numbers; instead, each number represented an individual who was needlessly killed. Each such death led to a circle of people who grieved for their tragic loss, and who would permanently be traumatized because of it. She helped people realize that deaths caused by drunk driving were not an acceptable inevitability.
Candy Lightner appeared on major television shows such as Nightline and Good Morning America, spoke before the US Congress, addressed professional and business groups, and worked tirelessly for years to change public attitudes, modify judicial behavior, and promote tough new legislation.
The persuasive logic and emotional impact of Lightner’s message led to a dramatic change in public attitudes toward drunken driving, which became socially unacceptable. She observed that the crime of driving while intoxicated was socially acceptable and that it was the only acceptable form of homicide. DWI was common and, as she said,
Judges do it. Juries do it. District attorneys do it. So you’re dealing with a crime that is not considered a crime by society. In my case, I was the first victim to speak out in a public way and I was able to garner the attention of the media, and through the media, then the public. [Then] people began to look at it from a different perspective. Instead of looking at the criminal and thinking “There but for the grace of God go I,” what I hope to do is educate them so they would look at myself or other victims and say, “Hey, there but for the grace of God could go my child or my spouse.”
Lightner’s efforts led to President Reagan appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving in 1982 and over 400 drunk driving laws being enacted across the country. She served on the Presidential Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving, National Commission on Drunk Driving, National Partnership for Drug Free Use, and the National Highway Safety Commission.
MADD became Lightner’s life as she struggled to overcome her grief. Serena stayed behind in California to finish high school when Candy moved with her son son to Texas, where MADD relocated its national headquarters.
In 1982, Congress passed legislation that rewarded states that raised their minimum legal drinking age to 21, but many states chose to maintain the age limits they had earlier deemed appropriate. If rewards would not lead states to comply with Washington’s desires, then punishment would coerce them to relinquish their independence. Lightner pushed for legislation that would penalize states financially if they resisted Washington’s de facto demand. In doing so, Lightner had to counter objections that the measure discriminated against legal adults age 18, 19, and 20, and that it usurped power that the individual states reserved under the U.S. Constitution.
The problem of drunk driving has now primarily been reduced to a “hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeal,” according to MADD. Most drivers who have had something to drink have low blood alcohol concentration (BAC) and few are involved in fatal accidents or crashes. On the other hand, while only a few drivers have BAC’s higher than .15, many of those drivers have fatal crashes. For example, almost half of fatally injured drunk drivers have a BAC of .20 (which is over twice the legal limit in all states) or higher.
The biggest problem in reducing drunk driving fatalities now clearly consists of the hard core of alcoholic drivers who repeatedly drive with BAC’s of .15 or higher. Candy Lightner points out that drivers with BAC levels higher than .10 cause over 80 percent of drunk driving deaths. “The man who killed my daughter kept on driving drunk,” Lightner told Health magazine. “He has since been arrested several more times. In each case his blood alcohol content has been .20 or above. A small segment of our drinking/driving population causes the majority of the fatalities. So why aren’t we going after them?” She said “If you want to save lives, raise your driving age. Lower the speed limit! Both of these do more than this does. This is a feel-good, do-nothing law.”
Candy Lightner says that “police ought to be concentrating their resources on arresting drunk drivers—not those drivers who happen to have been drinking. I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction.” She is disturbed by MADD’s shift from attacking drunk driving to attacking drinking in general.
Ms. Lightner left MADD and is concerned that the organization that she herself created is changing its focus. “It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned,” she says. “I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.” Lightner emphasized the importance of distinguishing between drinking alcohol on one hand and drunk driving on the other.
After Ms. Lightner criticized MADD, the organization went out of its way to try to minimize her role as the founder of the organization. It posed the question “Who founded MADD?,” to which it replied “Although Candy Lightner is probably the best known of MADD’s organizers, MADD was established by a group of women in California outraged after the death of a teenage girl killed by a repeat offender drunk driver.” However, MADD has more recently softened its stance against her.
Candy Lightner has received numerous awards and other recognition for founding MADD and her leadership in reducing the problem of drunken driving. President Ronald Regan bestowed upon her the Presidents Volunteer Action Award. Other recognition has included induction into Esquire magazine’s Register of America’s New Leadership Class in 1985, listing in the World Almanac and Book of Facts as being one of “America’s 25 Most Influential Women in 1985,” and listing in Good Housekeeping’s Most Admired Women’s poll in 1986. She has received honorary degrees in humanitarianism and public service from Kutztown University and Marymount College and was the subject of the 1983 NBC made-for-television movie, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers: the Candy Lightner Story.
In 1992, Lightner founded Victims in Action and later, being half Lebanese, served as President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. She owns Candace Lightner and Associates, a real estate company in Alexandria, Virginia.
Lightner’s daughter, Serena, founded SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), now known as Students Against Destructive Decisions. Like MADD, the organization formed chapters across the country.