WASHINGTON - When a grieving mother started a grass-roots organization in 1980, alcohol mixed with driving was killing more than 70 people a day but receiving little national attention.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving made it personal. Focusing on the stories of victims and their families, MADD quickly spread into more than 300 communities, helped persuade Congress to raise the drinking age and ended up getting the term "designated driver" into the dictionary.
"Twenty-five years ago, drunk driving was the last socially acceptable form of murder in America," says MADD president Glynn Birch, the organization's first male president. "And those pioneers of MADD set out to change that."
The advocacy group celebrated 25 years on Thursday with a rally on Capitol Hill, claiming to have helped save 300,000 lives. It said it aims to keep cutting the number of drunken driving deaths and will form stronger alliances with law enforcement and push for higher seat belt use.
Still, the organization says it's fighting a feeling among Americans that the issue is no longer so important.
"The nation has become complacent," said Birch, who became involved with the group in 1988 when his 21-month old son was killed by a drunken driver. "Back in the early '80s we had this grass-roots organization that was flaring up. This was a voice that you had to listen to."
In an era in which terrorism, natural disasters and diseases such as AIDS receive considerable attention, Birch said, "there are so many different things out there that we are in competition with."
In 1982, more than 26,000 people were killed in drunken driving crashes, and alcohol played a role in about 60 percent of all highway fatalities. Drunken driving was punishable with fines and sometimes shrugged off by the legal system.
The group's founder, Candace Lightner, still shudders at the memory of a California Highway Patrol officer telling her the drunken driver who killed her 13-year-old daughter probably would not receive a stiff penalty. The driver was a repeat offender with a history of drunken driving arrests.
Infuriated, she mounted a nationwide campaign that helped push Congress to set aside federal highway funds for anti-drunken driving efforts and then to pass legislation in 1984 to raise the federal minimum drinking age to 21.
By 2004, the most recent data available, the number of drunken driving deaths had dropped to nearly 17,000 a year and alcohol factored into about 40 percent of all deadly crashes.
The organization notes that the number of drunken driving deaths has made little downward movement in recent years. About 45 people are killed and nearly 700 are injured daily because of drunken drivers.
Some have questioned MADD's direction. Lightner, who parted ways with the organization in the mid-1980s, says MADD has failed to focus enough on its core mission.
"You don't hear about it any more - you don't hear the victims' stories any more," Lightner said in an interview.
A restaurant trade association, meanwhile, said MADD has taken a prohibitionist outlook. It said the major problem is with alcoholics who drive with excessive blood-alcohol levels while MADD has targeted adults who like to have a glass of wine or pint of beer with dinner.
"They're seeking more and more to remain relevant to the debate and I think they are finding it more difficult," said John Doyle, executive director of the American Beverage Institute.
Wendy Hamilton, a past president of MADD, said the criticism is "absolutely false," and a way of distracting "from the real issue here - there are harms associated with drinking and driving."
With a $53 million annual budget, MADD is a nonprofit funded by individual contributions, government grants and corporate sponsors.
Broadening its agenda, the organization has targeted underage drinking and lobbied for stronger seat belt laws and the use of sobriety checkpoints.
When Congress worked on a new federal transportation bill this year, MADD sought ways to encourage states to pass laws targeting repeat offenders and drivers with blood-alcohol levels of 0.15 percent, or about twice the legal limit.
Poll data released by the group Thursday said 60 percent of respondents had operated a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or close to being under the influence. The poll, among 926 licensed drivers between July 26 and Aug. 14 by the Gallup Organization, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.