Drinking and driving has been a problem for as long as we’ve had cars on the road — it even has its own legal designation. Nearly 10,000 people every year are killed in car crashes that involve at least one alcohol impaired driver. Why is drinking and driving such a pervasive problem and what can we do to fix it?
The Problem With Driving While Intoxicated
10,000 deaths every year might seem like an enormous amount but it’s a drop in the bucket when you compare it to the 1.1 million drivers who were arrested in 2015 alone for driving under the influence — or the 111 million people who reported that they had driven under the influence of alcohol in that time. Every state except Utah defines being under the influence as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) higher than 0.08%. Utah, as of December 20th, 2018, will lower that level to 0.05%.
While that’s a start, many believe it won’t make much of a difference, as history shows us that higher restrictions and penalties don’t tend to work as well as, say, a rewards system. That being said, what are some fresh ideas for stopping our drinking and driving problems?
Designate a Sober Driver
If you’re heading out for a night on the town where you’re planning on drinking, make sure you designate a driver who won’t be partaking and will be sober enough to drive you home at the end of the night. Some bars are actually starting to offer free water or soft drinks to designated drivers to encourage this practice — you get a wristband stating that you’re the designated driver so you can’t order alcohol but it entitles you to free soda or water while you’re there.
One bar in St. Louis even enters sober drivers in raffles for free prizes! By offering incentives for the designated drivers, these bars are taking steps to ensure that everyone gets home alive and that there are fewer drunk drivers on the road.
Make Transportation Accessible
Getting home after a night at the bar can be a tricky proposition. Uber and Lyft are often options, depending on where you live, but on popular party nights like New Year’s Eve, their prices shoot through the roof, which often deters people from ordering a ride.
People might be worried about leaving their cars at the bar but it’s better and safer than driving under the influence. One restaurant and bar in Alberta, Canada has rewarded its patrons for doing just that — one woman left her car in the parking lot and called a ride after having too much to drink. When she returned for her car, she found a note from the owner of the restaurant on her windshield — thanking her for making the right choice and offering her a voucher for free chicken wings.
Making transportation both more accessible and more affordable could go a long way toward reducing drunk driving incidents. And of course, not penalizing people for making the right choice and leaving their cars when they’ve had too much to drink is a good option too.
Lowering the Drinking Age Could Help
Drunk driving incidents aren’t restricted to individuals of legal drinking age. More than 75% of teenagers will probably try alcohol before they graduate high school, and statistics have found that one in 10 high school students drink and drive. Whether this is because they’re worried about the consequences of underage drinking or they simply think they are okay to drive, these teenage drivers simply add themselves to the statistics.
The United States is one of only 12 countries that require drinkers to be 21 or older to purchase or consume alcohol legally. 120 other countries have a drinking age between 18 and 20, and in 42 other countries, you can start drinking at 16 or younger. 19 of those latter countries actually have no minimum legal drinking age.
Barring teenagers from drinking alcohol tends to turn it into a mysterious and greatly coveted thing — something to be enjoyed in the dark of night when parents’ backs are turned. It becomes this forbidden activity, which inevitably has led us to the clandestine binge drinking culture we see today, especially in college. Instead of teaching teens how to enjoy alcohol safely, we lock it up and say no, and then wonder why high school students start driving drunk.
The alcohol-related death rate in the United States is 1.6 out of 100,000 people. In Italy, where it’s legal to purchase fermented alcohol like beer and wine starting at 16 and drinking is an integral part of the culture from a young age, the death rate is only 0.2 per 100,000 people. Having access to alcohol doesn’t make kids drink more — it actually makes them drink safely. Lowering the drinking age, even just to 18, makes alcohol less of a magical thing and more of a thing to simply be enjoyed in moderation.
It doesn’t take more severe penalties to reduce the number of drunk drivers in America — it could be as simple as rewarding designated drivers for being safe and getting rid of the mystery that surrounds alcohol. It’s a normal part of life — we need to make it normal instead of restricting it to the point that it becomes taboo.
Kate Harveston is a political writer and activist. She enjoys writing about issues related to social justice and policy reform, but she also writes about a variety of other cultural topics. If you like her work, you can follow her on Twitter for updates or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.