The Reporters Inc. is developing a historical documentary examining the cultural undercurrents in the U.S. that, for generations, have led many citizens into complacency about drunk driving.
Sure, gone are the crazy, cavalier days when Mom and Pop plopped unbuckled kids into the car and drove to the drive-in, beers in hand. And yes, we’ve seen great strides in the last three decades, with the number of drunk driving incidents in the U.S. decreasing yearly. But it’s still an enormous problem.
Are we stuck in neutral in our efforts to drive drunks off the road for good?
In this documentary, we’ll explore Americans’ level of tolerance toward drunk driving, our willingness to forgive offenders, and a perception that drunk driving is no longer a front burner issue in the country. We’ll do so by comparing drunk driving preventative strategies, laws and penalties, and cultural attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. with several foreign cultures.
The target audience: All of us. Anyone who drives a car, or knows someone who does. Anyone who drinks, or knows someone who drinks too much. The goal is to prompt viewers to re-examine their own actions and thought processes about drunk driving, in an effort to reawaken social awareness and create lasting societal change.
The purpose? Plain and simple: to save lives.
We know it’s wrong. We know it’s bad. We know it’s dangerous. Yet about 30 million Americans a year admit to driving while drunk. That’s 13 percent of the population.
Over the course of the last three decades, the drinking age has been raised, the legal blood alcohol content limit has been lowered, penalties and punishments have been increased and strengthened, and education and awareness programs have grown by leaps and bounds.
But still we drink and drive.
In fact, according to statistics compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving:
*In the United States, someone is injured in a drunk driving crash every 90 seconds
*Someone dies in a drunk driving crash every 53 minutes; that’s 27 people every day
*On average, one in three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime
*The average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before his/her first arrest
*50 to 75 percent of convicted drunk drivers continue to drive on a suspended license
*Approximately 300,000 people are on the road driving drunk every single day
There’s clearly a gap between the American belief that drunk driving is a menace to society and the American resolve to refrain from becoming a part of that menace.
The U.S. vs. The World:
Because every country reports drunk driving statistics differently, it’s difficult to truly determine which have the biggest overall problems. However, the U.S. reports the highest percent of drunk driving accident injuries and deaths.
At the same time, the U.S. is one of ten countries in the world with the most restrictive legal drinking age–21. And the U.S. is also one of the only countries in the world that grants drivers licenses years before it allows its citizens to drink alcohol. Many have argued, for years, that by making alcohol a forbidden fruit in our culture it becomes much more tantalizing to young people than it is abroad. The stigma results in secret use, which can then more readily lead to abuse.
A key difference among countries is the way they apply penalties. In the U.S., most states establish punishments that are more often based on whether the offender has one or more previous offenses. Penalties may also depend on whether the impaired driving incident resulted in a crash and whether the crash resulted in an injury or death. In the majority of other countries, by contrast, the arrest blood alcohol content (BAC) is of primary importance in determining the penalty. There is also more of an emphasis on rehabilitation, especially in European countries.
Since 2004, every single U.S. state has set a BAC limit of 0.08 percent. Some countries use the same BAC standard as ours; among them: New Zealand, Ireland, Italy, Brazil, Canada, China, the United Kingdom, Botswana, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Guyana, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, Tanzania, Uganda, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
But in most other developed countries around the world (more than 100) the limit is 0.05 percent. Among them: Argentina, Albania, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Mauritius, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, South Korea and Portugal.
In Japan, Uruguay, Turkmenistan, Belarus, Serbia, Moldova and India, any driver with a BAC of 0.03% is considered intoxicated. The standard is even tougher in Sweden, Estonia, Georgia, Poland, Paraguay and Norway at 0.02%, and in Algeria and Panama it’s 0.01%.
Some countries have zero tolerance. Any BAC above 0.00% will result in an arrest in Brazil, Nepal, Russia, Azerbaijan, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia.
In 2001, The European Union set a goal of cutting alcohol-related fatalities in half by 2010 and nearly succeeded. The number of fatalities fell by more than 40% (compared to a 25% drop in the preceding decade). It also brought down the average level of road deaths per one million inhabitants from 113 in 2001 to 69 in 2009 for all current 27 Member States. This is close to the level of the best-performing Member States in 2001 (the UK, Sweden and The Netherlands with respectively 61, 62 and 66 deaths per one million inhabitants).
Europe is now trying to cut the crashes in half again over the next decade by focusing on factors such as improved safety measures for vehicles, including wider dissemination and use of alcohol ignition interlocks.
Plan of Action:
We’ll travel to four very different places (three abroad, one in the U.S.), with very distinct cultures. There are obviously many countries to potentially include, and visit. But we’ve chosen three European parliamentary democracies (France, Sweden, and Bulgaria) because each has recently tried to tackle (or is tackling) the drunk driving issue in an aggressive and compelling fashion.
For our fourth stop, in the U.S., our selection might surprise some people: North Dakota. Details below.
We’ll compare and contrast drinking and driving beliefs, behaviors, enforcement, laws, and repercussions in all four of these locations. And we’ll compare the statistics. What works? What’s been successful? What’s had little or no impact? What are the common denominators in each country?
Furthermore, we’ll delve into the fact that different cultures assign different social and cultural meanings to alcohol itself, to drinking, and to drunkenness. The tie that binds us culturally is the desire to stop drunk driving, but what works in one culture might not work in another. We’ll apply a comparative analogy.
Of course, we’ll tell this story through the experiences and stories of people, people who’ve been injured by drunk drivers, people who’ve lost loved ones due to drunk driving, people who’ve hurt or killed people because of their drunk driving, etc. We’ll seek out the lawmakers and the activists, and talk to regular citizens. We’ll let our research guide us, but always remember that it’s the human stories that will make this production meaningful and memorable.
Destination #1: France
France’s culture has been so strongly linked with drinking wine with midday and evening meals that it can’t be much of a surprise that alcohol involvement in fatal accidents has been higher than other major European countries. In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) put the proportion of UK road deaths attributable to alcohol at 17%, Germany at 12% and France at 27%.
As a result, beginning in November 2012 it became a law that every car in France must carry a Breathalyzer. The idea was that every time French drivers get into their cars after having a drink(s), they could test themselves to see if their blood alcohol content was over the mandated blood alcohol limit for driving in the country–0.05%. By integrating the Breathalyzers into regular activity, the hope was that risk taking (drinking and driving) would be minimized and that regular self-testing would become a habit for all recreational drinkers as a result.
If pulled over for any driving infraction, police were to issue fines to those who didn’t have the Breathalyzers.
However, the whole plan was put on hold indefinitely this past March. Drivers found it hard to get their hands on the disposable test kits, with stores across the country frequently forced to put up ‘out-of-stock’ notices. Suppliers could not keep up with the demand. Questions were also raised over the reliability of the Breathalyzers, known as Ethylotests in France, and whether the results were accurate.
If a driver In France is caught with a BAC between 0.05% and 0.08% the penalty could include a $1,000 fine or suspension of the license. However, if the driver has 0.08% BAC or higher (the legal limit in the U.S.), it is a criminal offense. Immediate penalties include being held by police for 72 hours and a six-month license suspension, but it could also result in up to two years in prison and a $6,500 fine.
Destination #2 Sweden
When Sweden decreased BAC from 0.05 to 0.02 percent in 1990, the proportion of alcohol-related fatalities declined, from 31 percent in 1989 to 18 percent in 1997.
James Proctor and Neil Roland in their book, The Rough Guide to Sweden, write, “You cannot have even one beer and still be under the limit. If you are found to be over the limit you will lose the right to drive in Sweden, face a fine and a prison sentence.” Proctor and Roland also report, “Random breath tests are commonplace.” These are conducted in order to make sure that the drivers, who may not look drunk, can be caught easily.
Swedish law imposes a penalty dependent on the type of accidents that occur because of the offense. But it mandates a one-month prison term for first-offense drunk drivers, plus the loss of license for a year. These sanctions are strictly implemented all over the country. If you break the law more than once, your name, your face and your car goes into a database so police can stop you at anytime. The cars of repeat offenders are seized, sold, or scrapped.
Fines in Sweden are based on the income of the offender. One woman had to pay more than $21,000 following this rule.
As a result of all their efforts, Swedish officials now estimate that less than one percent of the drivers on the road are under the influence of alcohol. Drunk driving deaths have dropped from 471 in 2007 to just over 300 in 2010.
The Swedes (and all Scandinavians, actually) have an interesting relationship with alcohol. On one hand, they’re known for setting sail into international waters on booze cruises, for no other reasons than to drink themselves silly with duty-free alcohol. Yet it’s become socially taboo to even consider driving drunk. Those who do are often subjected to social scorn, their integrity is damaged, and their reputations are tarnished.
Destination #3: Bulgaria
Drinking and driving used to be perfectly acceptable in Bulgaria, with police often turning a blind eye to the whiff of alcohol. They’ve also been known to accept bribes. But things have changed.
Based on pending legislation, the legal BAC limit in Bulgaria is expected to drop from 0.05% to 0.00% early next year. The new policy is called ‘War on the Roads.’
Currently, Bulgarian police don’t have to have a reason to stop you and ask you to take a breath test. If they receive a positive reading you’ll have to go to the nearest hospital for a blood test within 30 minutes of being stopped (and you’ll need to get a ride there). If you’re totally incoherent and intoxicated you’ll be taken to a police cell for the night and the blood test will be done there. Your car will be abandoned at the roadside.
Bulgarian police are now everywhere, no matter what the time of day or night. They’ll stop drivers in the morning and demand they submit to a Breathalyzer–and many people are failing the test. Alcohol remains in one’s system for up to 10 hours. You may have only had three glasses of wine the night before and still be over the legal limit at 10 am the next morning.
Drunk drivers not involved in accidents currently receive anything from a three-month to three-year driving ban and a stiff fine of around $1,000. That’s a lot of money for most Bulgarians, and many are unable to pay it so they spend time in jail instead. For the duration of their driving ban, Bulgarians have to sign in at their local police station every single day. They’re not allowed to leave the country and their passports are confiscated until they’ve served their time.
Destination #4: North Dakota, USA
Of all the possible stops in the U.S., why North Dakota? Well, of the 10 states with the highest drunk driving rates, five are in the Midwest: Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. North Dakota’s rate of drinking and driving is significantly higher than the national rate: 988 out of 1,000 people admitted to alcohol-impaired driving. In 2010, 48 percent of North Dakota’s traffic fatalities were alcohol related.
It’s easy to presume that several key factors play a role for North Dakota’s high rates: There’s no mass transit, taxis aren’t easy to find, and many of the natives even admit that there’s not much else to do in the cold but drink! We’ll investigate.
In 2013, North Dakota enacted DWI legislation that, according to MADD, fails to reform the drunk driving law as it deals exclusively with repeat offenders. (MADD calls on lawmakers to enact legislation requiring interlocks for all convicted drunk drivers.)
Anyone who’s convicted of two or more DUI offenses must participate in ‘The 24/7 Sobriety Program,’ in which their blood alcohol content is tested twice daily or electronically monitored, to ensure that they’re abstaining from alcohol. North Dakota officials are already praising the program, estimating that 98% of those enrolled complete the 24/7 Sobriety Program successfully. Still, the question remains: Does completion really equate with effectiveness and success? Recidivism rates still need to be analyzed.
Questions to ask and potential ways to answer them:
On our global trek, we’ll ask some of the same questions at each stop. Among them:
Question: What do reformed drunk drivers say actually worked to get them to stop? Answer: We profile former drunk drivers who’ve remained sober behind the wheel after earlier tragedies.
Question: Why do some chronic drunk drivers (one third of convicted drunk drivers are repeat offenders) say nothing will stop them? Answer: We interview habitual drunk drivers, preferably a currently incarcerated offender with a plethora of past offenses.
Question: What are some of the more innovative punishments being handed out in the courts and do they work? Answer: Perhaps an interview with the Minnesota man ordered by the court to tell his story 100 times over the next five years.
Question: Would further lowering the BAC limit to 0.05 in the U.S. (as the National Transportation Safety Board recommends) truly stop the problem, and what would the pushback be? Answer: The American Beverage Institute (a trade group representing 8,000 restaurants) says a 0.05 percent BAC would punish moderate, responsible drinkers. It says this would limit some people to a single glass of wine, and that it would have a serious, negative impact on the economy, especially the restaurant and bar industry. How much is too much restriction? Or can there ever be too much?
Question: What increased role might social media play to help stop drunk driving? Answer:One man’s recent YouTube apology (for killing a man while drunk driving) went viral, watched by nearly 3 million people.
Question: Even in an impaired state, many drunk drivers know what they’re doing is wrong, from the moment they open their car door. Yet they still drive. How can this simple, yet crucial factor, be overcome? Answer: We interview bar patrons as they leave and head for their cars, and ask them if they think they should be driving. (And yes, for those who show obvious signs of intoxication, we’ll offer to get them a cab or some other form of safe transportation.)
Question: To forgive or not: Some victims, and loved ones of victims, say granting forgiveness to the drunk driver is the only way they could heal. But has forgiveness somehow led to leniency, tolerance, even acceptance of drunk driving? Answer: Interviews with people who’ve forgiven, or been forgiven. Such as the good Samaritan who was hit by a drunk driver and lost his leg, after stopping to help another motorist; the parents who lost their son, the man who lost his wife and two children; or, on the flip side, the mayor who sought forgiveness from his constituents after his drunk driving arrest.
Question: How would universal automotive technology preventing drunks from opening and/or starting their cars solve the problem? Answer: We interview those who’ve been forced to use the technology. And we look into developments on the horizon such as devices that detect alcohol in the air when a would-be driver exhales, and fingertip sensors.
Question: Why do the majority of drunk driving incidents occur:
a) On weekend nights b) two times as often among men c) most often among young men (in their 20s), and d) most often among people who binge drink (six or more alcoholic beverages in one setting)? Answer: When we’re young, we often feel invincible there’s a fearlessness that we lose as we get older. We’ll head to some college-age parties to film those who fall smack dab into this demographic. Student culture and social life vary in our four chosen locations so the comparative analysis should be interesting.
Question: What about the people who are outraged by drunk driving, and never do it themselves, but they still oppose random stops, road blocks and universal breathalyzer tests on the principle of civil liberty infringement? Answer: We interview some of the most outspoken for their points of view.
Question: Alcohol addiction obviously plays a major role in drunk driving. Should there be more of an emphasis put on rehabilitation, as opposed to punishment? Answer: We compare rehab efforts by visiting centers in our four destinations.
Question: How much responsibility should the deep pockets of the alcohol business (booze producers, advertisers, etc.) take for the problem? Answer: We compare and contrast the regulations, and seek out interviews with industry bigwigs.
All this and more. The Reporters Inc. is seeking funding and sponsors to complete this project. Please contact for more information.