Podcast Idea: The Madd Queen

How a grieving mother remade America's laws about drunk driving.

Description: On May 3, 1980, a 13-year-old girl, named Cari Lightner, was hit by a drunk driver. The collision sent her body flying 125 feet, and the man at the wheel never stopped. Cari died on the scene. This alone is tragic, but to make matters worse Cari’s killer was a repeat offender. He had three prior convicitons for drunk driving, and the day he killed Cari, he was out on bail from another hit and run drunk driving incident. This incensed Cari’s mother, Candy, who simply couldn’t believe that this was considered “justice.” And Candy vowed she would do something about it. In September of that year, Candy Lightner founded an organization you’ve almost certainly heard of: Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

You’re probably familiar with MADD, but what you might not realize is how unusual their rise to fame and policy change was. In just a couple of years, they managed to change several state laws around alcohol consumption and driving rules, like changing the legal limit for blood alcohol to .08 instead of .10. In 1984, just four years after its founding, Mothers Against Drunk Driving had pushed through a federal law that forced states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21. Since 1980, over 2500 antidrunk driving, victim rights, and underage drinking prevention laws have been passed. Many of those were either because of, or with the help of MADD. 

Drunk driving wasn’t a new problem in the 1980’s. People had been lamenting the perils of liquor and cars since cars were invented. So what made MADD so immediately effective? The answer seems to be Candy herself — a strategic, intense, cunning and sometimes ruthless character. Her might drove MADD to success, and also almost destroyed the organization. By 1984, MADD employees were calling Candy “The MADD Queen.” Just a year later, she left the organization.

This five part series explores the incredible boom and near collapse of Mothers Against Drunk Driving at the helm of Candy Lightner — and traces how a grassroots group of mothers were able to so quickly change policies that had been entrenched for decades. And ultimately asks the question: can today’s grieving mothers do the same thing with gun violence?

Host: Rose Eveleth* (yes I’m giving myself this show because I genuinely want to make it)

Executive Producer: Rose Eveleth **

Comps: Slow Burn (really this should just be a season of Slow Burn, call me!!!)

Sample Episode 1: Repeat Offender: We begin on May 3rd, 1980. We meet Clarence Busch*, who leaves his home and goes out drinking, despite being on bail for a drunken hit and run, and we trace his day. After he hits Cari, leaving her to die, he goes home to his wife. Instead of telling him what happened, he instructs her to “not look at the car” and passes out. Of course, Clarence Busch’s wife does indeed go look at the car. As Candy Lightner* describes it, “the rest is history.”

Sample Episode 2: Candy Wakes Up: Candy grieves for her daughter, but it’s not until she realizes that Clarence Busch won’t be punished the way she images that she really starts to consider action. Busch is sentenced to two years in prison but served them instead in a halfway house where he retained his car and drivers license, and was given time off for good behavior. (Shortly after his official release, he hit another girl while drunk driving, incredibly enough also named “Cari.”) It’s this lenient treatment that gets Candy going, and she decides she has to do something. We hear her first steps towards creating and organization.

In later episodes we meet the very first members of MADD, and what it was like to be part of such a small but intense organization, trace the meteoric rise of MADD from small grassroots group to incredibly effective lobbying machine, and hear about how the organization nearly collapsed on itself.

Audience: People who like to hear the unknown backstory of things, people doing Dry January, people thinking about how to make policy change, moms who wonder how to keep their own kids safe.

If you have a podcast idea that you’d like to see me turn into a Podcast Idea, send it my way! rose.eveleth@protonmail.com, or just reply to this email.

Bonus Podcast From Twitter

* Hosts and guests have not signed on in any way. I’m making stuff up here!

** This newsletter is for fun. Ideas belong to their initial creator, credited here as Executive Producer. Don’t be a dick and don’t steal these ideas. If you love a show, and really want to get it made, get in touch with the person who came up with it.

Long live independent podcasts. Long live bad ideas.