Friday 19 January 2018

Comment: 'Every time we let the designated driver have one or two we are actively saying that drink-driving is acceptable'

Our Road Safety Authority expert fears 'just two will do' attitude of yesteryear will creep back

April 2017 was the worst month for drink-driving offences in five years.
April 2017 was the worst month for drink-driving offences in five years.
Glass of whiskey and car keys on wooden table.

DRINK-driving is getting worse. April this year was the worst month for drink-driving offences in five years. Alcohol is a contributory factor in 38pc of all fatal crashes. This is a real crisis. All over the country, we're asking ourselves, "How did this happen? How did this become normal?"

Societal norms change rapidly, and it's sometimes hard to see how quickly we've changed. Look at smoking in workplaces, or paying for plastic bags. A lot of us wondered how such changes would go down, but almost immediately, it seemed, everyone got on board.

But what makes a norm? And why has the norm surrounding drink-driving not changed more rapidly? How is it that some people will still take a chance and get behind the wheel after taking a drink?

Let's look at a different kind of Norm. Specifically Norm from the '80s TV show Cheers. The term: 'designated driver' didn't spontaneously arrive in the cultural lexicon. Rather, it was consciously placed in culture, in large part due to the work of Jay A. Winsten, a Harvard professor working in the area of public health.

One of the things he did was contact TV networks and get them to include TV stories involving the idea of a designated driver. Norm in the bar in Cheers was one of the first. What followed was a series of 160 episodes on primetime TV, including shows like LA Law and Cheers, featuring the idea of a designated driver - a concept that had been largely alien to an American audience before then. It was a remarkable way of placing the idea of not tolerating drink-driving into every conversation in America.

But this is Ireland and it isn't the '80s any more. Back then, if you put a message on one of the two channels available to most Irish audiences, you'd have a good chance that most of the country would see it.

Now, in a world where we're getting all of our news and information from a million different sources, it's harder to create step-changes in the way we all think. And, ironically, in a world where technology has fractured our attention to such a degree, it's time to turn to the most low-tech of solutions: how we behave socially.

Most people have experienced saying they don't want to drink for one reason or another in a social drinking setting. And most of us have been told to "go on" and "sure just have one".

Too many people have seen someone having a drink, then getting behind the wheel. But how they react to that has changed over the years.

A lot of work made drinking and driving unacceptable, but I have a worry that if we are not single-minded in our efforts to tackle drink-driving, the "just two will do" attitude of yesteryear will creep back.

Every time a friend doesn't say something, or a blind eye is turned, or we let the designated driver have one or two, we are actively saying that drink-driving is acceptable on some level. It isn't. Ever. We can't tolerate it. We can't make it normal.

By extension, every time we call someone out on it, or call the gardai to let them know that a drink-driver is on the road, we're putting out a firm message that this is not normal. That we don't believe it is acceptable for deaths to happen at the hands of people who selfishly drive after drinking. That for every family who has lost a loved one, or every person who has been permanently disabled by a driver who has been drinking, we're saying: "This is not normal".

We don't have the ability to change societal norms in one fell swoop. It's down to each of us. And one by one, in each and every social drinking situation, we can change how we all believe we should see drink-driving. And when all of us speak out, we'll stop this crisis. We'll change what's normal. And we'll stop normal people from being violently, tragically, forced to live with profoundly abnormal consequences.

Irish Independent

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