Driven to Drink

The real reason behind our current toxic binge-drinking culture

"Brewers and legislators have created a society where regular social drinking is unfashionable, impractical and undesirable; but acute drunkenness one night a week is the opposite. And we're surprised at the results?" (Ian Mulvihill)

NOBODY can deny that Britain has a drink problem – hordes of mainly young people packing into town and city centres on weekend evenings with the express intention of getting drunk, with the inevitable violence and disorder, not to mention potential long-term health problems. This has very much been a development of the past fifteen or so years, and experts are at a loss to establish what the causes are.

But, I would suggest, the single key factor behind this unwelcome trend is something that has been widely hailed as one of the major successes in the battle against alcohol, namely making drink-driving socially unacceptable, when drink-driving is defined not as exceeding a legal blood-alcohol limit but as consuming any alcohol whatsoever before driving. Some may find this conclusion a touch perverse, but in reality it is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences, that if you squeeze jelly into a string bag at one point it is sure to pop out somewhere else.

The breathalyser was introduced in 1967, and few would dispute that it was a necessary measure, given that an increasing number of people were driving after consuming large quantities of alcohol, and the previous legislation made it difficult for the courts to convict them. But the breathalyser only outlawed drink-driving with a blood alcohol level above a certain point, and for a long period afterwards, lasting into the mid-80s, it was generally considered acceptable and indeed responsible behaviour for drivers to consume some alcohol, but to keep within the legal limit. Until this time, even official government publicity stated that it was acceptable (if maybe not ideal) for drivers to consume up to three units of alcohol before driving.

Car ownership rose from 9 million in 1967 to 15 million in 1982, and all new drivers had to learn to live with the breathalyser, which would often curtail their drinking. But many people became accustomed to a routine of social pubgoing by car, keeping within the legal limit, and perhaps only rarely taking advantage of an occasion when they were not driving to drink a little more.

However, from the mid-1980s, there was a major switch in the government approach to the problem, prompted by the continued high rates of offending. Police enforcement was considerably stepped up, but most crucially, the key publicity message was no longer “Stay Low”, but “Have None for the Road”, in other words, that drivers should abstain from alcohol entirely. This was largely ignored by existing drivers, who had become used to the “two pints” principle and were well aware that the law had not changed, but it was increasingly taken to heart by new entrants to the driving population.

Around the same time, it was recognised by local authorities that town and city centres had become run-down and unappealing during the evening, and they began to take steps to revitalise evening activity, of which one of the principal elements was encouraging the opening of new bars with a wider and more modern appeal than traditional pubs. Thus the die was cast for the transformation of the drinking scene and the rise of the town-centre circuit.

These two factors, taken together have now led us to the current situation. There are now over 25 million cars on Britain’s roads, over 70% of people travel to work by car, 85% of all passenger mileage is by car, and in the 20-50 age group, 87% of males and 77% of females hold driving licences. Whether this is a good thing is perhaps debatable, but the fact is that we are a highly car-dependent society.

If people are using cars much of the time, and feel inhibited from even very light social drinking when driving, they are likely to take a different approach to the whole concept of drinking. Rather than something ancillary to other activities, it will become an end in itself. The mere act of drinking becomes a special event for which you need to abandon your normal mode of transport. You’re not going to go to all the hassle, expense and inconvenience of buses and taxis just to go for a couple of pints; you will want to get your money’s worth. I have often heard sentiments expressed along the lines of “there’s no point in starting if you’re not going to finish”. To an extent that did not apply at any time during the last century, more and more people are now going out with the express intention of getting drunk, rather than using alcohol as a lubricant for socialising. And the drinking environment they find in town and city centres, of loud, glitzy, open-plan bars, tends to encourage intoxication rather than a more contemplative approach.

In this context, the point should be made that many people don’t actually want to get drunk, and probably feel uncomfortable with the conventions of the current town-centre scene, but don’t want to object for fear of being ostracised. A drive out into the country and a couple of glasses of wine with a nice meal at a restaurant may seem far more appealing than trailing round a succession of loud bars swilling Bacardi Breezers, but if the latter is what your mates are doing then you have to tag along.

Despite all the publicity about “I’ll be Des”, in general younger people do not tend to use designated driver schemes if they can avoid it, as it means one of them has to miss out on the fun. If you are a passenger in a car driven by an abstemious driver, the presence of the driver will encourage others not to over-indulge. But, if everyone has left the car behind and are trusting to the chances of finding a cab at 2 am, they will have no such inhibitions.

But, you may say, drink-related road deaths have more than halved since the late 1970s. Surely disorderly city centres, even if they have their problems, are a price worth paying? However, all of those benefits could have been achieved by an honest message of “Stay Low”, combined with the same stepped-up enforcement policy. The people who are persuaded to “have none for the road” are in general those who even in the past would not have drunk more than a pint or two. Shock adverts don’t deter potential offenders – the key factor is the likelihood of being caught. And, ironically, the current situation where responsible people are deterred from even having a single drink, but the hard-core offenders are encouraged by replacing traffic police officers with speed cameras, has in the past two or three years led to a reversal of the steady downward trend in drink-related deaths that had applied for over twenty years. The best deterrent of all is knowing someone else who has been caught, and the hard-core will have noticed that is much less likely to happen than it was ten years ago.

Realistically, there is no going back. It is inconceivable that the government are suddenly going to start admitting that a half of bitter isn’t going to make any difference to risk on the road (even though that is the truth). But it is important that we understand how and why we have arrived at the current situation, and it must be recognised that, in a society where the private car is and is going to remain the predominant means of passenger transport, to tell people they must not consume any alcohol whatsoever before driving is inevitably going to lead to the reaction that they will consume large and often antisocial quantities when they are not driving. Moderate, fairly regular, social drinking is the ideal we should be aiming at, but perversely we have deprived most people, most of the time, of the opportunity to drink outside the home in that way. That, more than anything else, is why the weekend streets are full of piss and puke.

Postscript: This is a view that is seconded by A. Tom Topper in his book Very Advanced Driving. He says:

There is another insidious side to the breathalyser. Drivers (particularly the young) are now inclined to gulp down large quantities of liquor fast when, if not because, they know they are having a lift. This has turned the previously reasonable and even distribution of drinking for many youngsters - and some of their elders - upside down. The temptation for bursts of heavy drinking when it is not their turn to drive has proven irresistible. The connection I make here with increased alcoholism is hard to dispute. Since the seventies the rate of drink-related deaths, in particular those resulting from liver disease, has doubled among the general population still under 50 years old. And this doesn't include greater numbers of drunk pedestrians being killed.

(March 2004)

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