1980: Candace Lightner Turned Tragedy Into Action & Changed The World
On their way to a church carnival, walking along a quiet road, the Lightners were consumed with thoughts of cotton candy and the thrill of shoddy carni-rides. The last thing on Candace Lightner’s mind that day was starting a revolution.
The car that struck 13-year-old Cari, Candace’s daughter, changed everything. The accident, the result of drunk driving by a man named Clarence Busch, would leave Cari’s twin sister as a solo act the rest of her life.
It would also beat down Candace, dragging her through all the stages of trauma until she came out on the other side, determined to do something.
She did. She not only formed the organization known as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) she changed a nation. Then that organization changed the world.
We can thank Candy Lightner for most of our drunk driving laws.
Candy studied in California, attending River College in Sacramento. It was in California she met her husband to be, Steve Lightner. He was an Air Force serviceman, like her father.
After marrying, they had the twins, Cari and Serena. Then they had the boy, Travis. Life for the Lightners was an otherwise sunny affair. They were church goers and maintained a healthy lifestyle.
Unfortunately for the couple, love did not last. They divorced, but Candy stayed in California, supporting her life by selling real estate.
Life went on for Candy and the kids, for eight years they made it work. Then tragedy struck.
May 3, 1980
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When the car hit Cari it struck her from behind, throwing her over 100 feet. The impact was so hard it left her shoes on the roadside.
Her little body was so damaged from the impact, they couldn’t harvest her organs for donor recipients.
The driver of the car, Busch, didn’t stop. The laws at the time were lenient, barely existent, but police had already busted him four times for drinking and driving. Those incidences had come with consequences, a total of 48-hours in jail, something he didn’t care to revisit.
Only two days prior he’d been in another hit and run, so he saw only one pathway: run. On top of everything, for a moment it seemed to Candy like her daughter’s killer would get away.
Busch wasn’t the only one with priors. The Lightners had suffered their own drunken mishaps over the years.
Once, when Candy was driving, a drunk rear-ended her station wagon. The twins were only 18-months at the time. Serena, Cari’s sister, suffered bruises and cuts from shards of glass, but she survived.
The boy, Travis, took a blow from a car driven by someone on tranquilizers. The driver hit him so hard, she broke his ribs, his leg, and fractured his skull.
When Travis came out of the coma, he was temporarily paralyzed on one side of his body and suffered permanent brain damage.
By the time the car hit Cari, Candy had had enough of impaired drivers.
Aptly named, mad was exactly how Lightner felt. She was mad enough to do something about the situation. The year of Cari’s death, the United States suffered some 27,000 alcohol-related traffic accidents, 2,500 of which in California.
Candy Lightner, a woman not even registered to vote, organized a neighborhood group that would garner so much attention she would testify in front of California legislature months after losing Cari.
Once she got her bearings, Lightner quit her job and pooled every resource she had. She became the chief lobbyist against drunk driving, what Lightner called, “the only socially accepted form of homicide.”
MADD would gather data on drunk driving statistics, vet the data, then report through various avenues, media, pamphlets, events, you name it.
Lightner worked through governor of California, Jerry Brown, setting up a task force to investigate drunk driving.
By 1981, California passed new, tougher laws for drunk drivers. Minimum fines would be $375 with mandatory imprisonment up to four years for repeat offenders.
The President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, asked Lightner to serve on the National Commission on Drunk Driving.
That group fought to raise the national drinking age to 21. At the time, crossing state borders to drink then drive home was rampant.
Reagan passed a bill in 1984 reducing highway funding to states who did not comply with the age-21 restriction. By 1985 all 50 states had passed laws reflecting the work of Lightner and MADD.
The drinking and driving laws passed by the United States became the template for the world to follow.
In five years, Lightner changed a nation and saved lives not only in her home state but around the world.
The driver who hit her daughter, Clarence Busch, served 21 months for his crime. When he got out, he hit another victim.