When it Comes to Driving Drunk, the Rest of the World Must Think We’re Nuts

It seems like we here in the United States are reluctant to learn anything from foreign countries. That indeed is the case where healthcare is concerned. For example, the cost of such care runs to nearly twice that of other countries regarding GDP and the results are the most dismal of nearly all of the industrialized nations of the world.

The underlying issue with drunk driving is alcohol use, period. The scientific literature bears this out. The widely respected British journal The Lancet, which is among the world’s oldest, most prestigious, and best known general medical journals in the world, just published a study this year about the risks of alcohol use. The Lancet declares flat-out that in 2016, alcohol use led to 2.8 million worldwide deaths and was the leading risk factor for premature death and disability among people aged 15–49 years and that their results show that the safest level of drinking is none. Traffic crashes are a part of the mix for this stunning set of findings.

But specifically, this is a blog about drinking and driving. So, since drinking is an a priori condition of drunk driving, what is the experience of other countries with respect to alcohol consumption and then getting behind the wheel? Interestingly, the European countries, (Spain, England, France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, along with Russia, China, and Australia drink more than us in terms of overall per capita consumption. In the communist-led countries, the opiate of the people turns out not to be religion but rather booze! Persons who are citizens of the Muslim diaspora broadly speaking are those who drink the least. But when it comes to drinking and then getting behind the wheel, Americans are among the worst violators in the world. It turns out that drinking and driving is about normative behavior—a sort of cultural okee-dokee that says that drunk driving behavior ought to be tolerated somehow and that the risk in doing so is acceptable in this freedom-loving country.

The residents of many other countries do not drink and then drive anywhere. Last year a friend of mine, born in the UK but now a naturalized U.S. citizen, spent some time in Ireland. He is known to frequent a pub or two while in that region and had occasion to observe the behavior of the local patrons there. What he came away with are two things: first, that drinking during the week was uncommon on the part of most, and; that if one were drunk or even impaired, there was no social stigma in calling a cab or finding another way home. In fact, that norm was the rule and not the exception.

Sweden has had a ≤ .02 g/dl legal limit since 1990 compared to that of the U.S. legal limit of ≤ .08 in all 50 states. Among 19 European countries, Sweden has the lowest self-reported percentage (at 2%) of drivers who state that they may have been over the legal limit for drinking and driving at least once over the last month while Cyprus and Italy have the highest at nearly 35%! But in no case, is the legal limit in those 19 countries over .05.

And there’s more. Of all automobile crashes where alcohol is a factor, the United States ranks third in the world at 31% of all crashes resulting in death, followed by Canada at 34% and South Africa at 58%! Following the they-don’t-drink-and-drive-in-Europe thesis above, France follows in fourth at 29%, Italy at 25%, the UK at 16% (includes Ireland), Germany at 9%, Russia at 9% and throw in China at 4%.
All of this is to say that foreign countries do a better job of holding down drunk driving crashes that result in death (and by extension, injury as well). How do they do it? The Swedes led the way in 1990 by lowering the legal limit to .02, improving road design, limiting sales or access, and heightening drunk driving penalties and law enforcement. To be fair, the U.S. has adopted a few of these strategies in its national Toward Zero Death’s (TZD) campaign. But after years of working with this campaign and even road improvements over time, the data doesn’t lie: we still lead the categories cited above.

America, can the rest of the world still teach us something about preventing and ameliorating drunk-driving? Europe, China and the rest, do you have something to teach us? It isn’t hard to teach; it’s just hard for us to learn.

The Deadly, Dirty Business America Won’t Talk About

One of my best buddies was crushed in his car-versus-truck head-on drunk driving crash years back.  It still affects me.  Yet with the prevalence of these incidents, the issue of drunk driving as a concern is one that is barely mentioned in the press or the media in general.  Yes, there is reporting about the latest car crash in the news if it’s sensational enough.  But all too often, crashes themselves are ignored or given space only on the back pages.  The Minneapolis StarTribune ran a story about a car/truck drunk driving crash in SW Minnesota just the other day.  The facts are nearly identical to my friend’s crash, reminding me of it.  No editorial followed.

About a third of all deadly automobile deaths are due to alcohol-impaired driving.  While you may see the occasional report about the crash itself, when was the last time you can remember a news article, opinion piece or reportage discussing the causes and solutions to the drunk-driving epidemic?  And is it an epidemic?  You be the judge.  Year in and year out over ten thousand people die here in the United States from alcohol-related crashes.  Another three hundred thousand are injured and maimed each year as well.  The federal government does a decent job of collecting this data and posting it to the web, but the average American citizen is just not going looking for it in the dusty caverns of government archives when so many other things are demanding their attention.  The media are complicit in this vacuum, so is the alcohol industry, and so are we.

Why is it a deadly, dirty business?  Deadly certainly, but dirty?  The simple answer is that it is a business that numbs the senses and kills over three million people worldwide according to the World Health Organization all the while hiding under color of law and custom.  News analysis and promotional articles detailing what might further be done to curtail these kinds of deaths and injuries don’t sell newsprint or airtime.  Further, the kinds of articles one sees in the popular press about preventing drunk driving tend to be much more about just stopping repeat offenders.  Gee whiz technology like breathalyzer interlocks ordered into repeat offender’s cars to keep them from starting if sufficient alcohol is present as a means of deterrence does get coverage from time to time.  Tax policy, sales outlet density, hours of sale, police alcohol check-point policy, and blood alcohol limits are rarely discussed.  So, things are pretty quiet around the media about alcohol and drunk driving.

Speaking of business, what about the alcohol industry?  It’s pretty much business as usual there too.  But while public discourse is fairly well muted about the causes and cures of drunk driving, the alcohol industry is busy ramping up advertising for its products after a long hiatus on advertising, especially of distilled drink products.  Where does this advertising occur?  In the very same publications and on airtime referred to above.  This is not to say that there is a conflict of interest on the part of the media, but money talks and a lot of money talks louder.  So, it would seem in a perfect world for the alcohol industry, their word gets out, and cautionary policy pieces are held to a minimum.  And as was stated in the beginning, that’s pretty much the way things stand right now.  Not to mention the thirty million dollars spent annually by the alcohol industry lobbying in Washington every year protecting and advancing its interests.  And so, things start to look a little dirtier.

The public demand for high-quality analysis of this awful combination of alcohol and cars is entirely non-existent.  As well it might be.  Journalists and pundits would have to go far down the extra mile to make such a discussion interesting, knowledgeable and sustained.  It is argued here that that is their job.  But if the public isn’t interested, and hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries are thought to be the acceptable cost of getting around and doing business, then like the lady said, “where’s the beef?”

Getting Started on the Journey

This blog is about a journey to find a better way of living for almost anyone who enjoys a drink once in a while.  I call it the BoozeBlog because I hope it’s a catchy title and grabs your attention.  And it’s mainly about drinking and driving.  Maybe together we can find better ways to get around safely, especially if we’ve had a few.

I like to travel.  A good journey is just the greatest.  Whether by car, plane, bike or boat, going somewhere is the best.  Finding a better way is a journey too.

A couple of things about me might help make sense of what this “journey” business is about.  I like to get around.  The picture you see is a selfie of me flying a little airplane I own.  I have a big-bike Honda Goldwing and have had many motorcycles in the past.  There’s a Thunderbird sitting in my garage too.  So you see, I like to go places in fast machines.

There are a ton of people killed and hurt every year in traffic crashes.  I hate that.  Nobody deserves it, especially you.  And a lot of times it’s not the fault of the driver.  In fact, this blog isn’t about fault.  It’s about being smart; knowing your way around; finding other ways.  Over the next year or so, maybe with your help, I hope to figure some things out and come up with some solutions to this mess on the roads.

I’m not an engineer, I’m a long-time social worker, working on a doctorate in social work at Southern Cal.  I don’t have any solutions yet, hence the journey.  Let’s do this!