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OBITUARIES : Robert I. McCarthy, 1920 - 2007

DMV chief tightened drunk-driving policy

December 04, 2007|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

Robert I. McCarthy, whose aggressive campaign against drunk driving led to his resignation as director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles during the Pat Brown administration, has died. He was 86.

McCarthy died of pneumonia Thursday at a convalescent hospital in San Francisco, according to his daughter Elizabeth McCarthy of Berkeley.

A former legislator, McCarthy represented the San Francisco area for 10 years in the Assembly and Senate before an unsuccessful run for state attorney general in 1958. Defeated by Stanley Mosk, who went on to become the longest-serving associate justice on the California Supreme Court, McCarthy was named director of the Department of Motor Vehicles by then-Gov. Brown.

In naming McCarthy to head the department in 1958, Brown said he wanted the 37-year-old San Francisco Democrat to institute a "get-tough policy" to improve highway safety.

McCarthy took the governor at his word. Under his leadership, the department began instituting suspensions for a number of driving offenses, including one-year suspensions for drivers who caused fatal accidents.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 05, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
McCarthy obituary: A photo caption that accompanied the obituary of Robert I. McCarthy in Tuesday's California section transposed the names of McCarthy and the late L.A. County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. McCarthy is at right; Hahn is at left.

In 1959, he announced that the DMV would suspend the licenses of convicted drunk drivers for up to six months on a first offense. The new policy was lenient compared with some other states', where licenses were confiscated from first-time drunk-driving offenders for as long as two years.

When traffic fatalities fell 10% statewide in the first seven months of California's crackdown, McCarthy concluded that the new policy was saving lives.

The policy was challenged in court by a Long Beach man whose license had been suspended for several months despite a trial court's recommendation that he be allowed to keep it and only pay a fine.

The case wound up in the state Supreme Court, which ruled on June 3, 1960, that the DMV suspensions were legal. By then, an estimated 32,000 licenses had been suspended under the policy promoted by McCarthy.

The crackdown became politically unpopular, however, after it netted a number of prominent and politically connected individuals, Elizabeth McCarthy said.

Brown, who initially had voiced strong support for the automatic suspensions, changed course in 1961 when he signed into law a measure that allowed the DMV to suspend licenses only if ordered by a court.

A month later, McCarthy resigned as DMV chief. He issued an angry denunciation of the Brown administration as "spineless."

In accepting the resignation, Brown told reporters that McCarthy had stepped down because he had failed to win the governor's endorsement of a plan to move Mosk to the Supreme Court and name McCarthy to succeed him as attorney general. McCarthy denied that he had proposed any such scheme.

Brown elevated Mosk to the Supreme Court a few years later, in 1964, after Mosk had served six years as attorney general.

After leaving the DMV, McCarthy ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in a heavily Republican district in San Mateo County. It was his last bid for elected office.

He devoted the next few decades to practicing law in San Francisco and helping run his father's construction company, but his daughter said he always missed politics and called it "the only game in town."

A native of San Francisco, McCarthy served in the Army during World War II and earned a Bronze Star during the Battle of the Bulge. He also participated in the Normandy invasion.

After the war, he earned a law degree from the University of San Francisco, where he also had been an undergraduate.

Along with his daughter Elizabeth, McCarthy is survived by his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth Caulfield McCarthy; a son, Robert, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; eight other daughters, Maureen of Copenhagen, Denmark; Monica of Davis, Calif.; Margery McCarthy Hall of Rockville, Md.; Sheila McCarthy O'Brien of Sebastopol, Calif.; Jennifer and Brigid of Washington, D.C.; Isabel of Concord, Calif.; and Cathleen of San Francisco; and 16 grandchildren.

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elaine.woo@latimes.com

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