Candy Lightner Founded MADD

Candy Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving).

Lightner was born on May 30, 1946 in Pasadena, CA. After she graduated from high school she attended American River College. She then married Steve Lightner. They had three children.


I.   Tragedy


III. Success

IV.  Hard Core Alcoholics

V.   Leaves MADD

VI. Today

VII. Resources

I. Candy Lightner Tragedies

A drunken driver rear-ended Candy Lightner’s car when her daughter Serena was 18 months old. The crash injured Serena.

Six years later an impaired driver ran over her son Travis. He had many broken bones and other injuries. Travis was in a coma. He had permanent brain damage. The driver who injured him was impaired by tranquilizers when she ran over him. She also had no license. But she got no ticket.

Candy Lightner
Cari Lightner

On May 3, 1980, Candy Lightner’s 13-year-old daughter, Cari, was walking in her quiet neighborhood in Fair Oaks, California. She was on her way to a church carnival.

Then a drunken driver struck her from behind. He briefly passed out, came to, and drove off after having killed Cari. The crash threw Cari’s body 125 feet. Her body was so badly damaged her organs were not donatable.

A repeat DWI offender committed the crime. He was free on bail for a hit and run drunken driving crash only two days earlier. Killing Cari was his fifth offense in four years.

II. Candy Lightner Started MADD

Candy Lightner
Candace Lightner

Candy Lightner started MADD in her home on May 7, 1980. It was formed days after the tragedy and a day after Cari’s funeral. That’s when she discovered that the offender would probably not spend any time in jail.

Ms. Lightner later wrote this.”I promised myself on the day of Cari’s death that I would fight to make this needless homicide count for something positive in the years ahead.”1

Her goal was two-fold. First, to raise public awareness of the serious nature of DWI. Second, to promote tough laws against it.

Before Candy Lightner’s crusade, people didn’t take DWI seriously. Some comedians made a career of acting drunken. In fact, drunkenness was often an excuse for otherwise unacceptable actions. “I didn’t know what I was doing — I was drunk.”

Lightner’s Approach to the Problem

Lightner’s insightful approach was to put human faces on the victims of drunk drivers. Statistics weren’t simply a collection of numbers. Instead, each number represented a real person.

Each such death led to a circle of people who grieved for their tragic loss. She helped people realize that deaths caused by drunk driving were not acceptable.

Candy Lightner appeared on major TV shows such as Nightline and Good Morning America. She spoke before the US Congress. Ms. Lightner addressed professional and business groups. She worked tirelessly for years to change public attitudes. To modify judicial behavior. And promote tough new laws.

The persuasive logic and emotional impact of Lightner’s message was effective. It led to a great change in public attitudes toward DWI. It had been the only acceptable form of homicide. Soon it became socially unacceptable. But also legally.

A Problem

The crime of DWI was common. And she explained, a serious problem.

Judges do it. Juries do it. District attorneys do it. So you’re dealing with a crime that is not considered a crime by society. In my case, I was the first victim to speak out in a public way. I was able to garner the attention of the media, and through the media, then the public. [Then] people began to look at it from a different perspective. Instead of looking at the criminal and thinking “There but for the grace of God go I.” What I hope to do is educate them so they would look at myself or other victims and say, “Hey, there but for the grace of God could go my child or my spouse.”2

III. Success

Lightner’s efforts led to President Reagan appointing a Blue Ribbon Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving in 1982. Soon, legislators passed over 400 drunk driving laws across the country.

Lightner also served on the Presidential Commission on Drunk and Drugged Driving. On the National Commission on Drunk Driving. The National Partnership for Drug Free Use. And on the National Highway Safety Commission.

MADD became Lightner’s life as she struggled to overcome her grief. She moved with her son to Texas, where MADD relocated its national headquarters. Serena stayed in California to finish high school.

In 1982, Congress passed legislation that rewarded states that raised their minimum legal drinking age to 21. But many states chose to keep the age limits they had earlier deemed good. Rewards did not lead states to follow Washington’s desires.

Lightner pushed for laws that would punish states financially if they resisted Washington’s de facto demand. In doing so, she had to counter objections that Washington usurped power that the states reserved under the US Constitution. She also had to deal with  the fact that it discriminated against legal adults age 18, 19, and 20.

IV. Hard Core Alcoholics

The problem of drunk driving is now largely that of a “hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeal.” That’s according to MADD. Most drivers who have had something to drink have low blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Few cause fatal crashes.

But while only a few drivers have BAC’s higher than .15, many more of them have fatal crashes. For instance, almost half of fatally injured drunk drivers have a BAC of .20. That is almost two and one-half times the legal limit.

The biggest problem in reducing DWI deaths now is the hard core of alcoholic drivers. They repeatedly drive with BAC’s of .15 or higher. Candy Lightner points out that drivers with BAC levels higher than .10 cause over 80 percent of drunk driving deaths.

“The man who killed my daughter kept on driving drunk,” Lightner told Health magazine. “He has since been arrested several more times. In each case his blood alcohol content has been .20 or above. A small segment of our drinking driving population causes the majority of the fatalities. So why aren’t we going after them?” She said “If you want to save lives, raise your driving age. Lower the speed limit! Both of these do more than this does. This is a feel-good, do-nothing law.”3

Candy Lightner says that “police ought to be concentrating their resources on arresting drunk drivers. Not on those drivers who happen to have been drinking. I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction.”4 MADD’s shift from attacking drunk driving to attacking drinking in general disturbs her.

V. Candy Lightner Left MADD

Ms. Lightner left MADD and is concerned about its changing focus. “It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned,” she says. “I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”5

Lightner stressed the importance of distinguishing between drinking alcohol on one hand and drunk driving on the other.6

After Lightner criticized MADD, it tried change history on its website. To do so, it minimized her role as its founder. But it has more recently softened its stance against her.

Ms. Lightner co-wrote  Giving Sorrow Words. How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life. Warner Books published it.

Awards and Recognition

Candy Lightner has received many awards and other recognition. President Ronald Regan bestowed upon her the Presidents Volunteer Action Award. Other recognition has included induction into Esquire magazine’s Register of America’s New Leadership Class in 1985. She’s also in the World Almanac and Book of Facts. She was one of “America’s 25 Most Influential Women in 1985.”

Candy Lightner
Serena Lightner

Ms. Lightner was listing in Good Housekeeping‘s Most Admired Women’s poll in 1986. She has received honorary degrees in public service from Kutztown University and Marymount College. The NBC TV movie, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers: the Candy Lightner Story honored her.

Lightner’s daughter, Serena, founded Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). It’s now Students Against Destructive Decisions. Like MADD, the group has chapters across the country.

VI. Candy Lightner Today

Candy LightnerMs. Lightner formed We Save Lives and serves as its president. It is the leading group in the US fighting the 3D’s. That’s Drunk, Drugged, and Distracted driving.

She continues to make a difference in reducing traffic crashes and saving lives. Few living people have made such a major contribution to society.

VII. Resources on Candy Lightner

By Candy Lightner
About Candy Lightner
    • Adrian. L. (Ed.) The Most Important Thing I Know.
    • Already the conscience of a nation, Candy Lightner prods Congress into action against drunk drivers. People Weekly, 1984, 22, 102+
    • Bresnahan, S. MADD struggles to remain relevant. Wash Times, Aug 6, 2002.
    • Candy Lightner. Biography.
    • Candy Lightner: Her mission saved the world. Women’s Inter Cent.
    • Candy Lightner. My Hero.
    • Davies, L. 25 years of saving lives. Driven, 2005 (Fall), 9-17.
    • Friedrich, O. Candy Lightner. Time, 1985, 125, 41.
    • From Grief to Anger. Making One MADD. Candy Lightner. People Weekly, 1999 (March), 110.
    • Hanania, R. Lightner’s departure from ADC. A death knell? Arab Amer News, 1995 (March 31).
    • Legacy of Leadership. Driven, 2005 (Fall), 27-31.
    • Lightner, Candy. Girls Can’t do What?
    • One woman can make a difference. Candy Lightner and Mothers Against Drunk Driving or MADD. Vogue, 1986, 176, 170.
    • Original thinkers. These five helped reshape the way we see our world. And live and work in it. Life, 1989, 12(12), 167-171.
    • Siblani, M. Candace Lightner new president of ADC, replaces Mokhiber. Arab Amer News, 1994, (Oct 14).

1. Martin, M. Virtuous Giving, p. 75.

2. James, G. Candy Lightner Interview (Founder of MADD). Famous Interviews.

3. Griffin, K. The Push To Lower The Legal Blood-alcohol Threshold Has A Surprising Opponent. Mothers Against Drunk Driving Founder Candy Lightner. Is She a Traitor? Orlando Sent, July 10, 1994.

4. Nat Motorists Assn. Power MADD, March 6, 2000.

5. Dresty, J. Neo-prohibition. The Chron, May 12, 2005.

6. MADD as hell and not going to take it anymore. Broadcast, 108, 58.