A Sociotechnical Analysis of Drunk Driving.

There are only three countries that I’ve spent any appreciable amount of time in: Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I often have a lot of fun comparing the three to one another; despite their shared language and philosophical heritage, there are some interesting things that can be learned from their subtle differences. Case in point: Drunk driving.

Now, virtually everybody I’ve ever met, in all three countries, is opposed to drunk driving. It is a credit to our time that virtually nobody I have met in Canada, the US, or the UK thinks that drunk driving is a good thing to do. Most people, myself included, condemn it in very harsh terms. But while everybody tends to think it’s a bad idea to drive drunk, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it are different between Canada, the US, and the UK.

The British people I have interacted with are by far the most dedicated to avoiding any chance of driving drunk. When I go to a pub with my British friends, those who have driven cars will typically forego alcohol altogether. No drinks with food. No half-pints. They make do with coffee and soft drinks. And anybody who has had more than a half pint before getting into a car will likely lose some face.

In Canada, people are slightly more lenient. Nobody will drive if they are drunk, but there is a perception that, even when driving is concerned, there is a difference between having drunk, and being drunk. It is commonly accepted that people will drive to a restaurant or a bar, have a drink or two (often with food), and then drive home. I’ve been a passenger through a few drunk driving checkpoints in Canada, and the driver’s reassurance that they’ve only had one or two drinks over the course of the evening is usually enough to get the officer to wish them a good night and wave them on. But if somebody is showing even mild signs of intoxication, then their friends will normally insist they find another way home, and will often offer to provide either taxi fare or a crash pad.

Americans are the most lenient. The Americans I know still think that drunk driving is a very bad idea, but they will nevertheless drive to the bar with the express intention of drinking moderately. That doesn’t mean that people get wasted and drive home; all the times I’ve gone to an American bar, the drivers have taken pains to moderate how much they drink. But it seems to be generally socially accepted that you might drive home mildly buzzed from time to time. Any signs of serious intoxication, however, will be looked at the same way that they are seen in Canada or the UK.

Now, this is only my personal experience. I belong to a very particular class, and I have primarily lived in cities, so this is far from a representative sample. I am probably making at least a few massive over generalisations. But at least a few formal studies seem to support my observations: Drunk driving deaths per 10,000 population about 0.1 in the UK in 2011;  about 0.23 in Canada that same year; and about 0.32 in the United States in 2012. Does this imply that Americans are reckless drinkers and dangerous drivers, while Britons are generally safer and Canadians are somewhere in between? I don’t think so. Ascribing these kinds of things to the moral differences between countries is usually just a way to reinforce your own biases. It’s much more productive to look at systemic factors that might influence peoples’ decisions about drinking and driving.

And as soon as I think about it, an obvious systemic factor emerges that could be partially responsible for these different attitudes. In my experience, attitudes towards drunk driving seem to correlate very strongly with transportation infrastructure, and urban planning more generally. The British cities where I have lived and visited have multiple public transit options, and the pub is often in walking distance of your house. In Canada, the bar is usually in a considerably longer, but still manageable walking distance, and there is probably a slightly dysfunctional bus service that will get you there if you don’t want to walk. In the United States, bars and restaurants are often stranded in isolated parking lots, making driving essentially the only way to reach them.

I don’t think this is a coincidence. The connection between these two variables is, after all, quite obvious. People who have ways to get to and from the bar without driving will make use of them. People without such options will go to the bar anyway, normally using their car. Whatever doctors and safety campaigners might say about it, drinking seems to be a very durable social practice-it goes back to pre-history, after all. And it tends to provide an important context for socializing. We could try to change this, and suggest that people go to coffee shops on Friday afternoons if there isn’t a pub within walking distance, but w probably wouldn’t have much success. If prohibition and the threat of prosecution couldn’t stop people from drinking in the 1920s, then nothing we’re willing to do in the twenty-first century is likely to do so, either. One way or another, people are going to go to the pub, and if they have to, they’ll drive there.

None of this excuses drunk drivers in the slightest. Most twentieth-century states prosecute them harshly, and are right to do so. But those who really want to tackle the problem would do well to also consider its socio-technical root causes. I think that some anti-drunk driving campaigners might have things backwards. There are two elements necessary for drunk driving: A drink, and a motor vehicle. Maybe rather than trying to get drivers to not drink, campaigners should focus instead on removing the pressure for drinkers to drive. That means systemic change. It means better public transit infrastructures; it means pubs in residential areas; and it means more walkable cities. That’s harder than telling people not to drive drunk, but it might just save more lives.


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