Less than two weeks ago, Mothers Against Drunk Driving hailed legislation introduced by Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey that would require the cars of people with drunk driving convictions to be fitted with devices that check alcohol levels before drivers can start them.
The bill, which Mr. Lautenberg pushed more than once, was introduced 25 years after landmark legislation the senator spearheaded became law. In 1987, the de facto national drinking age became 21—states that refused to raise the minimum age to drink alcohol lost a portion of their federal transportation dollars.
Mr. Lautenberg died early Monday of complications from viral pneumonia. He was 89.
The drinking-age battle was just that. Mr. Lautenberg even had to win over President Ronald Reagan.
“He had to fight like hell to get it through,” Jay A. Winsten, associate dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, said in an interview with The New York Times. “The estimates are that the cumulative lives saved are in excess of 25,000.”
In addition to changing the lives of 18-year-olds everywhere—before Mr. Lautenberg forced states’ hands, fewer than half the states required drinkers to be 21—Lautenberg pushed for comprehensive sex education.
His Real Education for Healthy Youth Act, introduced most recently in February with California Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat, would expand age-appropriate comprehensive sex education programs, train teachers to talk to teenagers about unintended pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and expand sex education programs at colleges and universities. The bill would also prevent federal funds from being spent on what a press release called “ineffective, medically inaccurate sex education programs.”
“We’ve lost a great statesperson who believed in #teens and fought for #goodsexed,” tweeted Elizabeth Schroeder, the executive director of Answer, which pushes for comprehensive sex education. It is located at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
The latest version of the bill was introduced on Valentine’s Day of this year. At the same time, Mr. Lautenberg, who was in the middle of serving his fifth term as senator, announced that he would retire.
Mr. Lautenberg was the oldest member of the U.S. Senate, its last World War II survivor, and a stomach cancer survivor. The Times said that although Mr. Lautenberg overcame the cancer, he did not attend many senate sessions over the last few months.
In 2011, he and other members of the New Jersey congressional delegation recorded the message below for the “It Gets Better” Project, which attempts to give students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender hope that there will be a time in their lives beyond the harassment they may be experiencing as teenagers.
PHOTO: U.S. President Ronald Reagan signs legislation raising the national drinking age to 21 during a ceremony at the White House Rose Garden on July 17, 1984. Others are from left: Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole; Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill.; Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candy Lightner; Rep. Gene Snyder, R-Ky.; New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean; Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo.; Reagan; and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, R-N.J.; others are unidentified.—AP-File
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.