Check Out This 1984 Pro-Drunk Driving Op-Ed The NYT Published

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Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

There are plenty of opinions that haven’t aged well, like how in college you may have insisted that if you could just look past some things, the Nazis were really just a very dapper group of city planners, or if you once tweeted that the only real role model you ever had was that Jared guy who shilled for Subway. A fantastic example of this phenomenon is a remarkable op-ed that ran in the New York Times back in 1984, where an English professor insisted that drunk driving was fine, just fine, mostly because he did it all the time and wasn’t dead or had killed anyone yet.

Actually, maybe the idea that this hasn’t “aged well” isn’t really accurate; this hot take was garbage the moment it came out, if we’re honest, but I think the fact that it was printed at all may be the part that’s changed the most over time, as I really can’t imagine any mainstream publication giving space to this sort of delirious, delusional screed today.

What makes this op-ed really incredible is that it’s not just a “drunk driving isn’t so bad take,” but an active “drunk driving is good” take, with the suggestion that in order to make drunk driving even better, kids should get more and easier access to alcohol.

Now, I don’t entirely disagree with some of that; I do think it’s possible that tight restrictions on alcohol could make the forbidden appeal of it greater among older teenagers, and could lead to more excess than if it was more accessible. I mean, there’s some truth there, I think.

But, the idea that driving a car while drunk is in any way okay is just absurd.

Here, let’s actually look at what the author, Philip B. Linker, an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk Community College, had to say, because it’s pretty incredible. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll pull some key parts out here for you.

It starts with a real banger of an opening paragraph:

LAST Saturday night I drove home drunk or almost certainly that would have been the indication from any breath or blood test that I might have been required to take. I drove home drunk the Saturday before that, too, and the one before that, and the one before that, in what probably amounts to a fairly consistent pattern over the last 25 years, ever since I have been licensed to drive.

Damn, Phil. Pretty bold move admitting you’ve been driving drunk every week for 25 years, making for a grand total of at least 1,300 times the Professor has been drunk behind the wheel.

Phil does go on to remind us that in all those times, he’s never had an accident nor been pulled for drunk driving, which is a pretty remarkable streak of luck, even though he discounts both luck and driving skill as factors:

This is not to suggest that I encourage weekend intemperance, or intemperance at any time, for that matter. Neither do I wish to extol my own driving ability, nor to say that somehow I’ve been leading a charmed life, because what happens to be true for me applies no less to nearly all of my friends.

Now, before you assume that Phil’s whole point here is just based on anecdotal personal experience and what he guesses has happened to his friends, you’d be quite wrong:

Indeed, I would venture to extend that to include the vast majority of those whose life styles are in general similar to mine; namely, to all who regularly socialize with family, friends and neighbors, at cocktail or dinner parties, in private homes, restaurants, clubs or any other place where alcoholic beverages are customarily served. At the end of any particular evening, most of those who have engaged in such activities undoubtedly have in their bloodstreams a measure of alcohol above the minimum percentage established by the state beyond which one may be considered intoxicated or impaired, or, to put it bluntly, drunk. Yet these people almost invariably drive home safely without incident, accident or arrest – just as I do.

See? He’s not guessing this is the case for everyone—he’s venturing to extend, possibly the most rigorous form of pulling things out of one’s ass known to man. Using this demanding, hyper-precise form of imagining, Phil has virtually eliminated any possibility that drunk people with “life styles…generally similar” to Phil’s can possibly cause any harm by drunk driving.

Now, this attitude isn’t really all that foreign to me. My parents seem to be from the same generation as Phil, a pre-boomer generation that drank a lot and drove a lot, often at the same time.

I remember my dad telling me stories of being a drunk idiot in the Bronx in the 1950s, driving his Bel Air around while so plastered that he once parked it right in the entrance way of a drugstore at the bottom of the building he lived in, causing the owner to have to go to his apartment to wake his drunk ass up and move his car so he could open the store.

These stories were told with a mix of nostalgia, wonder, and some embarrassment. He and pretty much everyone he knew drove drunk on a regular basis, and while he got lucky, that didn’t mean everyone he knew did. Too many people he knew died by being drunk and crashing cars with the only safety feature being that the metal dashboard was easy to hose off after a wreck.

Records for how many people die in drunk driving-related accidents have only been kept since around 1980, when there were about 28,000 alcohol-related driving deaths. Around the time Phil decided to write his pro-boozy driving missive, drunk driving deaths were in slight decline, dropping 11 percent from 1982 to 1985, but then jumped up seven percent to 23,990 by 1986.

Plenty of people were dying from drunk driving-related crashes, even if they weren’t the sort of people Professor Phil would be hanging out with, throwing back screwdrivers and discussing how well that Ziggy really understood what everyone was going through.

The real problem, Phil mused, using the same powerful ex recto research skills he’d demonstrated already, was the kids. They just can’t hold their booze:

It is a well-established fact that most alcohol-related traffic accidents involve young people, usually males, in the 18- -to- 24-year-old age group. To counter that, New York recently raised the minimum drinking age from 18 to 19, and, in order to be consistent with neighboring states and a growing national trend, is contemplating raising it to 21.

See, the problem is that those candy-ass teens of the ‘80s don’t know how to fucking drink, like Phil does, because Phil has been putting it away forever:

When I was a child, I was always permitted a small glass of wine or champagne at Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays or other special occasions. If ever I asked for a sip of my mother’s or father’s drink at cocktail time, it was never denied. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was permitted, if I so desired, to add a couple of drops of rum to my Coke, or to drink a small glass of beer every once in a while. The same practice held true for most of the kids I grew up with.

See? He was a drunk kid! He knows what he’s doing! Just like the classy Europeans:

In many European countries, there is essentially no minimum drinking age, and on many highways, no speed limits. Yet in these same countries, the number of alcohol-related accidents is far lower than here in the United States. To be sure, there are drunken drivers in Europe, and those who are caught are dealt with severely, but for the most part, to Europeans alcohol and its responsible use is as much a part of civilized life as good manners and proper dress.

Plus, they dress better, too.

Phil does note that European drunk drivers “who are caught are dealt with severely,” but somehow that shouldn’t apply to America, for vague reasons that involve him typing the words “true liberty.”

Phil’s argument ends with an interesting paradox:

“Let us as citizens and motorists demand the enforcement of strict penalties for those found guilty of abusing that responsibility while driving, and by so doing, let us return a lost liberty to responsible users of alcohol and restore safety to our highways.”

Okay, so, strict penalties for those “found guilty” or driving drunk, but just let everyone else drive drunk, which basically means “don’t get caught.” Right? Am I missing something?

Of course, the deep flaw in Phil’s brilliant plan of not bothering to stop people from driving drunk until they fuck up because they’re driving drunk is that it means people will be driving drunk, which fundamentally doesn’t work well.

I drink with some regularity, and I can absolutely tell that when I’m drunk I should absolutely not drive my carfor the selfish reasons that I generally really like my cars and for the less-selfish reason that I’d rather not use my car to kill anyone, including myself, a very real possibility as I don’t regularly drive anything with airbags.

When you’re drunk, you don’t drive as well. That’s it. Your ability to drive is literally impaired. This isn’t even something that’s up for debate. Would Phil have written this ridiculous, self-excusing diatribe if every week for 25 years he drove home in a car with no brakes and a half-broken steering rack?

Probably not, because the well-dressed Europeans don’t do that.

As you can imagine, Phil’s op-ed got all sorts of feedback at the time, even from his friends. This is a letter to the Times from a few weeks after the original article:

As a Bayport neighbor, I know and like Phil Linker. However, his revelation that he has been drinking and driving on Saturday nights, in what he calls ‘’a fairly consistent pattern over the last 25 years,’’ is not something to brag about. For one who is responsible for the education of our young, both as a member of the local school board and as an associate professor at Suffolk Community College, to conduct himself in such a manner is a shame.

Oooh, Phil, you’re busted. Even better, Phil’s dumb story also cost him his seat on the Nassau-Suffolk School Board Association, where he was not only the only incumbent to lose, but the only incumbent anyone bothered running against, a situation that happened precisely because Phil decided to brag about how much he drank-and-drove:

‘’I chose to run because I felt I had something to contribute,’’ Mrs. Abrams said. ‘’And I chose to run against Phil Linker because of his stand on drinking and driving.’’

The letter was still being referenced as recently as 2011, in a Johns Hopkins University Press book about drunk driving since 1900, even.

I think we can all agree that Phil’s stance on drunk driving was a pretty bad take. I haven’t been able to find out too much more about Phil after this brave defense of inebriated driving, but I suspect at the very least Phil learned to at least shut up about how much drunk driving he did.

This op-ed is a really incredible artifact of how much times have changed since the mid 1980s, as, again, I cannot imagine any situation where a major media outlet would give time or space to someone defending drunk driving.

And despite this fact, somehow, I still feel relatively free.

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