Ms. Lightner is honored to have been selected by many students as one of the subjects for the 2017 National History Day. The theme for this year is “Taking a Stand in History.” Unfortunately, Ms. Lightner cannot respond to each student as much as she would like and she is hoping that the following will provide answers to many of the questions that would be asked. If not, you may email her your questions. She will do the best she can to answer them in a timely manner.
These questions were written by the students and answered by Candace Lightner.
Tell us a little bit about your early life? What type of home did you live in? How was school etc.?
I was an Air Force brat who lived in numerous countries, traveled a great deal, and went to numerous schools. I have lived in Guam, France, Germany, and Japan and travelled to more than 21 different countries. My mother was Lebanese and my father was from Kentucky. I am a Third Culture kid. I lived the longest in Sacramento and attended St. Mary’s Catholic School where I started a junior order of the nuns who taught there. I was always big on organizing things. School was interesting. I excelled in Latin and intensely disliked geometry. I loved working on the yearbook and always saw myself becoming a writer. My home was typical of a military brat and we lived on bases more than in civilian communities. I loved experiencing different cultures and strongly support diversity. I also believe that my background helped me deal with my daughter’s death and start an organization. My father said I was always rebellious and that may be why I started MADD.
What were the main reasons for the start of MADD?
My 13-year-old twin daughter, Cari, was killed in a hit and run drunk driving crime by a multiple repeat offender drunk driver who was out on bail from another hit and run drunk driving crime. I wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to someone else. Read this History.com article to learn more about it here and this People Magazine article.
What really made you think that you should create MADD?
When I learned the man who killed my daughter probably would not spend any time in jail, much less prison and how it was not considered a serious crime. Read more about it here.
Was it difficult to “rise” with MADD? Was starting an organization difficult?
Incredibly difficult. I was grieving for my daughter, trying to earn a living and dealing with a socially acceptable crime that everybody committed including my friends and neighbors. Plus, I had never started a non- profit before. I was a mother and a real estate agent.
Who were the government officials that helped create MADD by passing laws and etc.?
There were no government officials that helped create MADD but there were some who were very supportive, including Steve Blankenship from the California Attorney General’s office, Spike Helmick from the California Highway patrol and Jim Fell from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Office.
How did you handle your grief? Did people act differently around you after Cari was killed and after MADD began to thrive?
I grieved like most other people do. The only thing I didn’t do was grieve in public, except once. I don’t think you handle grief. I think grief is too overwhelming to handle. I just tried to get through each day, one day at a time. Some people did treat me differently. Many of my friends seemed uncomfortable and that may be because they drank and drove. They are no longer my friends. A few did not and they are still my friends. I co-wrote a book about grief, entitle, Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get on With Your Life that is a sharing of stories of people whose loved ones died. I also talk my mourning and that of Cari’s brother and sister.
What is it that you wanted to gain from founding the organization (MADD)?
Simply put, to save lives and prevent someone else from going through the same heartache I did.
What happened to the man who killed your daughter?
Not much. Thanks to the media attention we received he was sentenced to two years in prison but went to a halfway house instead where he drove his car to and from work and went home on the weekends. He still had a valid California Driver’s license. He was out after 16 months and promptly hit another woman while drinking and driving. Read the People Magazine article about it and Los Angeles Times article.
Did you think any people would agree with you and help support the cause?
I did and yet they didn’t in the beginning. It took a long while before we had people on our side and wanting to help. Most people don’t realize that. We also had to deal with people who just wanted to share in the glory once we became a household name. Read more about it here.
We are interested to know how the media first responded about your cause.
We had a national press conference in Sacramento, California announcing the organization in August of 1980 and we also had started a petition drive asking the California Governor to launch a task force on drunk driving. The media was there and I think the fact that we had just had the worst drunk driving crash in California history the week before probably made a difference. If I remember correctly, nine people were killed including 7 members of one family. (or it was 7 people killed including 5 members of one family) I then went to Washington DC and marched on the White House and asked the President to form a National Commission against drunk driving. So, at first the media was very receptive. After that I had to go visit them in their offices to get their attention. After we started chapters, the media in that state would pick up the story and we would then generate more media attention.
I appeared on the Merv Griffin Show on March 8, 1983.
Video courtesy of Reelin' In The Years Productions LLC
Can you share what steps were involved in getting President Reagan to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 and can you share how you felt?
Briefly, we educated the legislators, media and the public, asked for a Presidential Commission to solve the drunk driving problem which was formed under President Reagan and one of the recommendations was to have uniform national drinking age bill. We met with congress members, encouraging them to pass the bill and created a great deal of literature on the subject which was handed out at every opportunity. We had numerous facts and statistics plus we had victim stories. We developed a map with what we called Blood Borders that we took everywhere that showed how young people were crossing over from one state to the other to drink, thereby killing themselves and others at the borders. Read this People Magazine article for more information.
Even if the crime against your daughter wasn’t committed, would you have taken a stand anyway?
I don’t know.
Do you believe if the current drunk driving laws were already in place in the 1970s, your daughter, Cari, would not have died, and other accidents crimes or crashes of the time would not be so recurring?
I do believe she would be alive and there would be fewer drunk driving crimes.
I read that your family was impacted by drunk driving more than once, what made you take a stand after Cari's death?
Cari’s twin sister, Serena was injured in a drunk driving crime when she was a toddler (we do not call them accidents, we call them crashes or crimes) When Cari was killed I learned that nothing was going to happen to the driver even though he was a multiple repeat offender and that made me very angry, so I decided to start MADD.
Did you ever think about this crime before it affected you directly?
Only when it happened the first time and my mother was hit and both girls were in the car and Serena was injured. However, at that time I was a young struggling single parent of twins and due to my mother’s hospitalization, I had other priorities
Do you stand by every action you have done for drunk driving or do you regret certain decisions you have made?
There is nothing to regret. I am credited with launching an organization that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
What seasons or national events do you feel like this message, to stop drinking and driving, are important? (such as prom or super bowl)
It is a problem all year long but we always place more emphasis on the issue during holidays, such as the fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Events such as prom, graduation, major sport’s events, Friday night happy hours, are also times when drinking and driving can be more of a problem.
How do you feel when you hear about terrible drunk driving crashes or crimes when you have tried everything to prevent them?
Heartbreak and wondering what more I could do. Then I have to remind myself that even though I can’t make a difference with everyone, I have made a difference with many and those “many” no longer drink and drive.
Are you confident in the current drunk driving laws or do you still believe there is work to be done?
We need to tighten loopholes and enforce the laws we already have. My biggest concerns right now are drugged and distracted driving that are still socially acceptable.
Besides helping to push the government into creating laws to punish those responsible for these crimes, in what ways do you help the community on a daily basis?
Educate, advocate and use social media and our volunteers to get our messages across.
Why do you think people decide to still drink and drive, (or ride in a vehicle with an intoxicated driver) even after they know the consequences of their actions?
Beats me. In many cases these are criminal abusers of the drug alcohol and people live in an age of denial. They think it couldn’t happen to them and passengers are too afraid to offend their friends so they risk their life instead. Dumb.
What changes have you seen that have really made an impact in our society today because of these laws?
People support the designated driver program. They are also more inclined to call taxis or other transportation if they have had too much to drink. The penalties are more in line with the crime and the biggest change is that drunk driving is no longer socially acceptable. We would like to get everyone to support the Courage to Intervene because then we would really save lives!
What things do you still feel like need to change in order for these crimes to diminish?
Continued awareness about the seriousness of impaired driving, increased enforcement and enforcing the laws we already have plus implementing such programs as the 24/7 program, ignition interlocks (which should be on some people’s cars forever) and drug courts.
What were some obstacles you had along the way?
I think the biggest obstacle was the prevailing attitude that drunk driving was socially acceptable and not a crime. Everyone drank and drove, legislators did it, media it, comedians made jokes about it, etc. Another obstacle was that I was not taken very seriously in the beginning although that soon changed. However, those opposed to our mission tried to portray me as nothing more than a grief-stricken mother on a crusade. That was accurate but what they didn’t count on was that I also planned to succeed.
What years and events did you feel had a great impact?
The first 4 years ending with the passage of the 21-year-old drinking age bill.
Why was it important for you to take a stand against drunk driving?
If you aren’t part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.
Do you think enough is being done today to continue to fight against drunk driving or do you think we could do more as a society?
I don’t think enough is being done, but I think the solution lies in ongoing education, enforcing the laws we already have, tightening the loopholes and encouraging people to intervene when someone they know someone is going to drive irresponsibly.
Did you ever think you would make that big of an impact?
Not a clue. I had never done anything like this before and I didn’t realize how serious the problem was or how socially acceptable drunk driving was until I started MADD. I was so caught up in my own grief and that of my family’s plus starting task forces around the country that I just didn’t have the time to think about impact.
Do you know of any books, websites, documentaries, etc., that would help broaden our knowledge on you and your story?
Watch the movie trailer: Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, The Candy Lightner Story.
You can purchase the movie here.
And Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life, co-written by me.
Are you still technically in charge of this group?
Heavens no! I manage another non- profit that focuses on the 3 D’s, distracted, drugged and drunk driving, We Save Lives.
Many websites and articles have shown different reasons about why you left MADD, what is the true reason or reasons?
Simply put, I was burned out and I was spending more time dealing with board politics then the issue of saving lives.
What is your opinion on MADD's change of focus to underage drinking?
I haven’t thought about it but it is certainly an issue that needs addressing.
What is your opinion on the MADD organization? Do you continue to support them as an organization?
I support all organizations who work on highway safety issues.
We were wondering if you think it would be a good idea for us to interview an offender of drunk driving? Do you think it is necessary to your story and accomplishments?
You can see our video ReflectionsfromInside.
Can you give us some insight about We Save Lives and your connection with it?
I am the founder and current President.
What is the difference between what the MADD organization and the We Save Lives organization does to help the community?
We Save Lives is an international partner organization that focuses on the 3 D’s, drunk, drugged and distracted driving. We believe that drunk driving is a multi-faceted crime deserving multi-faceted solutions, not just one. We are very concerned that drugged driving is a growing threat on our highways and deserves far more attention and legislative action then it is getting. We also believe that we need to unite in our efforts to stop distracted driving and that is what We Save Lives provides, the opportunity to unite on highway safety issues and increase our impact.