We’ve known for many decades that drinking and driving is problematic. Drinking alcohol interferes with your senses, impairs your judgment, and slows your reaction time, ultimately increasing the risk of an accident. Over the years, various organizations have invested time and money into high-profile awareness campaigns, hoping to reduce, or even eliminate drinking and driving altogether. On top of that, modern ridesharing services make it possible for anyone with a smartphone to get an inexpensive ride home from just about anywhere.
So why is it, despite this increased awareness and the increasing number of options available to potential drunk drivers, that DUI arrests are actually increasing?
Drinking and driving is still an epidemic, and a complex assortment of different variables are to blame.
The Overconfidence Effect
Alcohol has many effects on the mind and body, including impairment to your driving abilities. Most people know this, and understand it completely when sober. But one of the most interesting effects of alcohol is that it increases your confidence, and impairs your ability to estimate your own level of impairment.
For example, let’s say you could measure your ability to drive on a scale of 0 to 100. If you start at 90, a few rounds of alcohol might take you down to a 40; you still have the mechanical capability of operating the machine, but your reaction time is nonexistent, and you can’t necessarily trust your senses. Alcohol’s overconfidence effects could make you falsely estimate your ability to drive a car at 70; you know you’re impaired, but you feel like it’s not that bad.
Accordingly, many drunk drivers who shouldn’t be on the road legitimately feel as if they’re capable of driving home. They simply don’t realize how drunk they are, or how impaired the alcohol is making them. Friends and onlookers might allow them to get into a car and drive home, because they don’t have any subjective frame of reference for how that person is feeling. Only if they’re paying close attention to how many drinks they’ve had can they potentially measure their level of intoxication objectively. But that leads into another issue.
Having a small glass of wine three hours ago is going to have little to no effect on your ability to drive a vehicle safely. But most cases of drinking aren’t clear-cut. DUIs are usually based on your blood alcohol content (BAC), a measure of how much alcohol is currently in your bloodstream. If your BAC is 0.08 percent or higher, you’re considered “impaired” from a legal standpoint in the United States. Note that if your BAC is lower than this but you’re still driving erratically, you could still be charged with a DUI.
This doesn’t mean much to the average drinker. How many drinks does it take to get to 0.08? This is a very complicated question. Many variables play into your BAC, including your sex, your weight, your age, and your metabolism, not to mention how much time has passed. The type of alcohol you drink can also matter, and other substances (like caffeine) can make you feel more or less affected. On top of that, a 0.08 level will subjectively feel different to two different people. Accordingly, it’s hard to tell exactly which amount of alcohol is “too much” to drive.
The Stigma of Alcohol
In some ways, alcohol is still celebrated as a beverage in the United States. We drink it at parties and social gatherings. We drink it at bars and in our homes. Depending on your preferences, you can indulge in wine, beer, or distilled spirits, and probably find a drinking buddy or two to enjoy it with no matter where you are. Yet there’s still a stigma connected to alcohol and excessive alcohol consumption.
For example, a person may have several drinks at a bar and get far more intoxicated than they intended. Rather than calling a cab, they insist on driving themselves home. They don’t want to admit that they lost control, or that they can’t handle their alcohol well, so they feign sobriety to preserve their self-image. If the problem is chronic, as is the case with alcohol dependence, the stigma can be even stronger.
It’s no secret that drinking and driving is a bad idea, and for years, we’ve struggled with increased rates of injury and death because people insist on driving even when they’re intoxicated. But the problem is deeper than it first seems. Raising awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving may help new drivers understand, but the complex effects of alcohol, the variable effects on different populations, and the long-lasting stigma of alcoholism all play a role in allowing DUIs to remain common. And unfortunately, there isn’t a straightforward solution.