These days, if you’re behind the wheel with alcohol on your breath and you get stopped by police, you’re in big trouble. Cindy Lightner and the organization she founded in 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), deserve a lot of the credit for that, by raising public awareness of how drunk drivers were causing carnage on the roads and by pressing for tougher laws against driving while intoxicated. But an experimental psychologist, Herbert Moskowitz, should get some of the credit too, because his work made it possible to tell who was too tipsy to drive.
When Moskowitz, who died on Nov. 21 at age 87 near Los Angeles, began his work in the mid-1960s, there was a general assumption that fall-down drunks who shut down a bar were a hazard if they got behind the wheel afterward, but less extreme alcohol consumption wasn’t necessarily viewed as dangerous. But Moskowitz, who put subjects into driving-simulation machines after they imbibed, proved otherwise.
In a landmark 1973 study, for example, Moskowitz and his colleagues found that drivers with just 0.02 percent blood alcohol – about what a 175-pound man would have after drinking two beers in 90 minutes, according to this calculator – suffered “significant impairment” in terms of being able to pay attention to multiple things and to rapidly process information. And a 1976 study, for which Moskowitz was the lead author, showed that drunk drivers didn’t visually scan the road as effectively as those who were sober and instead got stuck on staring at certain spots in their field of view. That explained why they were more inclined to run into other vehicles and wrap their cars around trees or telephone poles. In one test, he determined that a vodka screwdriver containing four ounces of alcohol would slow down the brain by 11.5 percent.
Moskowitz and his colleague Marcelline Burns also did research that took the guesswork out of police officers’ determinations of who was too intoxicated to drive safely. In the late 1970s, he helped evaluate the finger-to-nose exercise and other field tests, matching performance on them with blood-alcohol levels. That also helped prove that an obscure phenomenon called horizontal gaze nystagmus – an involuntary jerking of the eye as it gazes to the side – was a reliable sign of drunkenness. The result: a definitive 1981 report, Development and Field Test of Psychophysical Tests for DWI Arrest, that helped police officers’ testimony stand up in courts across the nation.
When he wasn’t studying the effect of alcohol on drivers, Moskowitz also helped NBC News report in 1975 on the effects of marijuana. While he wasn’t an advocate of driving while stoned, Moskowitz found in a 1973 study that the two drugs affected drivers differently, and that pot didn’t impair them quite as much.