The Social Factors in Drinking and Driving

Experts and activists in drinking and driving all often have the same simple question: why? Why do people drink and drive? Why put your life at risk and the lives of others at risk instead of calling a cab, getting a designated driver, or failing to publicly binge drink in the first place? It seems like a terrifyingly large risk for so little gain, and yet it happens often enough to be a social epidemic worldwide.

In order to evaluate the causes, you just have to look at the demographics of the people who drink and drive, especially in the United States. Men drink and drive more often than women. This has nothing to do with any sort of spurious fundamental biological difference between the sexes, and everything to do with the fact that many men feel the need to take risks in order to prove their masculinity to one another.

Masculinity in American culture is partly characterized as not having an aversion to anything, and that includes high levels of alcohol for some men. Binge drinking is universal among fraternity brothers, and the boys who do it are trying to perform their masculinity in front of one another due to the way that American culture defines masculinity.

Youth is a huge factor. The people who commit drunk driving offenses the most are young. Many of them are teenagers or twenty-somethings. The rate of drunk driving doesn’t start to seriously decline until the people in question are over 45. Some of this is due to the fact that people in their mid and late forties and beyond have familial responsibilities and similar grounding forces in their lives. Lack of brain development can explain teen drinking, but it doesn’t explain drinking among people who are well into their twenties and beyond. Culturally, there is an idea that one’s twenties should be spent having fun, which is apparently characterized by getting drunk a lot.

People in their early and mid-twenties are often still in college. College has been an environment that has encouraged binge drinking for a long time. Binge drinking is thoroughly normalized on college campuses. It’s seen as a normal part of the college experience, with all that that implies. Socially, college students will live down to those expectations as much as they possibly can in many cases.

Eliminating drinking and driving altogether is going to require some widespread cultural changes. Simply attacking the problem itself is treating a symptom. As important as it is to attack drunk driving in all of its forms and regardless of its cause, as long as certain aspects of the culture normalize binge drinking, it will still be with us in some form and at some level.

We need to embrace a version of masculinity that doesn’t celebrate irrational behavior, risk taking, and pretending that one’s body is capable of anything and immune to everything. We need to treat campus binge drinking as a problem and not a simple reality of college life that just happens to get students and other people killed. We need to eliminate the idea that having fun in one’s twenties involves drinking at the exclusion of the personal development that it should involve. Safe drinking is one thing, but our culture celebrates unsafe drinking. We are enabling and encouraging drunk driving deaths in the process.