Candy Lightner (born 1946) transformed a personal trage dy into a crusade against drunk driving. She founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a grass-roots organization dedicated to curbing alcohol-related traffic deaths.
Lightner was born May 30, 1946, to Dykes Charles Dodderidge and Katherine Dodderidge in Pasadena, California. She graduated from high school in 1964. After attending American River College in Sacramento, she married Steve Lightner, who was a U.S. Air Force serviceman like her father. Together they had three children. After her divorce from Steve, Candy Lightner supported herself by selling real estate in Fair Oaks, California. She had lived there for eight years when her life was turned upside down by tragedy on May 3, 1980.
Lightner's 13-year-old daughter Cari, while walking down a quiet street, was struck from behind by a car. The impact threw Cari 125 feet, knocking off her shoes and mutilating her body so badly that it was not possible to save her organs for donation. Clarence William Busch, the driver of the car, did not stop. At the time of the crash, Busch had four previous drunk driving convictions, for which he had served, at most, 48 hours in jail. He had been arrested for another hit-and-run accident just two days before hitting Cari.
Cari's death was the most tragic event in Lightner's life, but not the first time an impaired driver had injured her children. Earlier, when Cari and her identical twin sister, Serena, were 18 months old, Lightner's mother's station wagon had been rear-ended by a drunk driver. In that wreck, Serena was bruised and covered with glass cuts. Six years later, Lightner's son, Travis, then four, had been run over while playing in front of the family's house. Travis was temporarily paralyzed on one side, and suffered a collapsed lung, broken ribs, a broken leg, and a fractured skull. He spent several days slipping in and out of a coma and required surgery multiple times to repair damage to his body. His head injury caused permanent brain damage. The driver, who was unlicensed, was impaired by tranquilizers at the time she hit Travis, but did not even receive a ticket.
Lightner was overwhelmed with anger when, several days after the catastrophe, she learned that the driver who had caused her daughter's death would likely serve little or no time in jail. "I was furious," Lightner recalled in her book Giving Sorrow Words. "I felt enraged and helpless." After learning the details of the accident from a highway patrolman, Lightner sat in a restaurant bar with friends, and watched her fury light the spark of action. "I'm going to start an organization because people need to know about this," Lightner angrily told her friends. One suggested a name for the group: MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
One day she was a divorced mother of three selling real estate in California, not even registered to vote. Within months, Lightner was testifying before legislatures. "I had become a personality and a crusader with a cause," she recounted in Giving Sorrow Words. "The texture of my days changed enormously."
By the time Clarence William Busch was sentenced to two years in prison, Lightner had breathed her passion into MADD. Scraping together seed money from sources including Cari's insurance policy and her own savings, Lightner quit her job and plunged into lobbying for tougher drunk driving laws. Her goal was to eliminate what she called "the only socially accepted form of homicide." Alcohol abuse resulted in an estimated 240,000 traffic deaths in the 1980s. "I had in mind twenty women marching on the Capitol in California," Lightner told Vogue's Lorraine Davis. "But within two months we were about one hundred people marching on the White House in Washington."
Fueled by her intense rage, Lightner turned over her life to MADD, to the exclusion of everything, including her surviving children. "I was unstoppable," she recalled in Giving Sorrow Words. "I was so obsessed that, in many ways, I did not permit life to go on outside of MADD." Lightner traveled the country giving speeches, rallying volunteers, and testifying in favor of tougher drunk driving legislation.
Lightner put her obsessive determination to work lobbying Governor Jerry Brown of California to create a state commission for studying drunk driving. After several months of daily visits to the governor's office, Brown formed the commission and made Lightner its first member. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan asked Lightner to serve on the National Commission on Drunk Driving. By 1984, MADD had successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to raise the national legal drinking age to 21, a change said to save approximately 800 lives annually. Inspired by her mother's activism, Lightner's daughter, Serena, formed school-based SADD, Students Against Drunk Driving. Like MADD, the organization formed chapters across the country.
Over the next five years, as president and chairman of the board of MADD, Lightner appeared on radio and television shows including Nightline and Good Morning America. Her life was even the subject of a 1983 NBC made-for-television movie called Mothers Against Drunk Drivers-The Candy Lightner Story. During her career as an activist, she has served with many organizations, including the Sacramento County Task Force on Drunk Driving, Presidential Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving, National Commission on Drunk Driving, National Partnership for Drug Free Use, and the National Highway Safety Commission. For her service, Lightner was awarded many honors, including honorary degrees in public service from Kutztown University in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, and Marymount College in Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
Even after Lightner moved on, MADD continued to grow as a national force. By 1999, the group had become the largest victim-advocate and anti-drunk driving activist organization in the world, with approximately three million members in more than 600 chapters throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. Instead of trying to eliminate drinking entirely, the group focuses its attention on curbing drunk driving.
After leaving MADD, Lightner realized that by constantly being so busy, she had avoided experiencing the grieving process. She began to understand that she had never healed emotionally from her daughter's death, even though many years had passed. Lightner chronicled her grieving process in her 1990 book, Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life, which she co-wrote with Nancy Hathaway. "For five and a half years, instead of focusing on my grieving, I concentrated on the manner in which she died," Lightner wrote. "Practically everything I did was centered on the fact that she was killed by a drunk driver rather than the fact that she died." The book, which contains interviews with dozens of people who have coped with the death of a loved one, offers readers suggestions on how to deal with their own grief.
In addition to writing her book, Lightner continued to speak out against drunk driving in lectures across the country. In 1992, she founded a group called Victims in Action and its legislative arm, the Victims in Action Political Action Committee. In 1994, Lightner drew fire from MADD for lobbying on behalf of the American Beverage Institute, a trade group of restaurant and hotel executives. She took sides against her former allies over states wanting to pass laws lowering the blood alcohol level at which a driver is considered legally drunk from .10 to .08. Lowering the limit would not get the most dangerous drivers off the road, Lightner argued. Drivers with blood alcohol levels above .10, she asserted, cause more than 80 percent of drunk driving deaths. "The man who killed my daughter kept on driving drunk," Lightner told Katherine Griffin of 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?"
Challenging rumors that she'd gone soft on drunk driving, Lightner maintained that she favored enforcement of existing laws that allow police to take away the cars of repeat drunk drivers. "I am still amazed that the man who killed my daughter is barred from ever owning a handgun," she told Griffin, "but he can own a car."
Lightner, Candy and Nancy Hathaway, Giving Sorrow Words:How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life, Warner Books, 1990.
Prominent Women of the 20th Century, edited by Peggy Saari, UXL, 1996.
Who's Who of American Women, Reed Reference, 1993-94.
50 Plus, May 1983.
Health, July/August 1994.
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North Country Times, March 3, 1996.
Vogue, April 1986.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving, http://www.madd.org (March 8, 1999).
Women's International Center, http://wic.org (March 4, 1999).