Remembering a Pioneer of Drunk Driving ResearchThe experimental psychologist whose pioneering research on the effects of alcohol and drugs pushed policymakers to set lower legal limits for intoxicated driving in the U.S. and elsewhere has died, as Rebecca Trouson reports in the December 17 Los Angeles Times. Trouson writes that the psychologist, Herbert Moskowitz, who also helped produce standardized field sobriety tests, died on Nov. 21 at his home in Encino, CA, of complications from leukemia, his son, Ivan, said. He was 87.
When Moskowitz began his work in the mid-1960s, it was generally believed that fall-down drunks were dangerous when they got behind the wheel, but that less extreme alcohol consumption was not hazardous, Patrick Kiger writes for AARP blog, in his article “Herbert Moskowitz: The Psychologist Who Made Our Roads a Lot Safer.”
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 earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from UC Berkeley in 1948, then a master’s and a doctorate in experimental psychology from UCLA. He was a faculty member of both UCLA and Cal State LA before retiring in 1985, and used his background in physics as well as psychology to create rigorous experiments. For example, his research found that even a single drink — a much smaller amount than previously believed — could slow the brain and raise a driver’s risk of an accident, Trouson writes.
Trouson quotes Allan F. Williams, an authority on alcohol-impaired driving, as saying of Moskowitz: “He was just a brilliant thinker. He had the ability to see things that others couldn’t and came up with ways to show the effects of alcohol on divided attention, which can significantly affect performance. He was a pioneer.”
Along with colleagues, Moskowitz did research through the Southern California Research Institute (a nonprofit he founded) that led to the uniform three-test battery of field sobriety exams used by police across the U.S. He also studied the effects of marijuana, cocaine, and prescription drugs on driving and other skills, Trouson writes.
Richard Blomberg, a transportation safety expert whose firm, Dunlap & Associates, often competed with Moskowitz for grants, told Trouson that Moskowitz’s work “really helped raise public consciousness in the U.S. and globally, about the potential of alcohol and drugs to affect traffic safety.” Blomberg said Moskowitz was very articulate and persistent, and made people pay attention to the issue.
Moskowitz was especially well-known for studies showing how alcohol affects tasks that require divided attention, which is commonplace in driving. The sensitive behavioral tests he developed measured such factors as vigilance, rates of information processing, and reaction times.
“Partly as a result of Moskowitz’s efforts, Blomberg and others said, the standard across the United States for driving under the influence is now a blood-alcohol level of 0.08%, and some states impose penalties at lower levels,” Trouson writes.
Coloradans might like to know that although Moskowitz was not in favor of people driving under the influence of marijuana, he found in a 1973 study that pot did not impair drivers quite as much as alcohol. His research showed that alcohol and marijuana affected drivers differently, Kiger writes.