Alcohol, Abstinence, and Drinking and Driving

The Globe and Mail recently posed a question: how do we fix our drunk-driving problem? It has always been my position that the only way to ensure that there is less drinking and driving is by raising awareness of the dangers through education, and enforcing existing drunk driving laws in a visible manner. This means frequent roadblocks, television and radio ad campaigns, presentations at schools, and road signs alerting drivers to the impaired driving laws.

I was surprised to see that the article quoted a police officer, Constable Stibbe, from Toronto Police in relation to obtaining blood samples. A recent article in the BC Medical Journal criticized the use of hospitals as “safe havens” for drinking drivers, suggesting that the police are essentially stymied in impaired driving investigations where a driver ends up in the hospital. Or in cases where a driver requests medical treatment following an accident. While I’ve always had my doubts about the validity of the information in the article (particularly noting that Robert Solomon, MADD Canada’s policy director, was an author) it’s been difficult to find a source that doesn’t get the “she’s a biased defence lawyer” critiques to support my beliefs.

So I was glad to see that Constable Stibbe spoke out about the lack of veracity in those arguments. His comments in the article are worth reading, as they reflect essentially what I’ve been saying all along: police can get the evidence by following established legal procedure, and convictions cannot be measured by alcohol-related convictions alone.

I’ve read a lot of research from the international community on strategies at reducing drunk-driving fatalities. One theme that has emerged from successful drinking and driving campaigns is early education through school-based programs about the dangers inherent in drinking and driving. These have been found to be an effective way to decrease drunk driving fatalities. But what is Canada’s position when it comes to alcohol education and high school students?

A study was commissioned by Health Canada, in conjunction with the Alberta Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission and the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse to develop a National Alcohol Strategy. You can read it here. But the recommendations that they made that pertain to underage drinkers and alcohol are ridiculous and so totally out of line with well-known information about teenagers and what they’re going to do.

Alcohol education is important for high school students, as it connects quite obviously with drinking and driving education. If you know how alcohol will affect you, how it will impair your judgment, and how your body will react to it, you’re going to connect those effects to the information you are given about drinking and driving accidents. Anyone with half a brain can see the connection between decreased coordination and visual impairment and car crashes. So educating youth about alcohol is as important as educating them about drinking and driving.

But alcohol education has to be realistic. And the National Alcohol Strategy’s recommendation is to develop programs that promote abstinence as a valid goal for everyone. Yup, the National Alcohol Strategy wants to create abstinence-first alcohol education. Haven’t we seen the failure of abstinence programs in sex education in the United States? Shouldn’t alcohol education reflect the reality of alcohol consumption: most teenagers are going to drink, so here’s how to do it responsibly? And yet, the opposite is occurring.

If we treat underage alcohol consumption as something that should be shamed, or as something that should be viewed as abnormal, we will not ensure that safe use of alcohol actually occurs. And while my first experimentation with alcohol and drunkenness was, by my choice, at home with my parents, most children do not say “Mom, Dad, I’d like to get drunk so I know how it affects me, and how I react to alcohol, so that I can make responsible decisions when I am out with my friend.”

Also, by the way, that experiment did not increase my level of responsibility as a teenager when it came to alcohol afterward. I ended up doing all the typical teenage things that everyone else did notwithstanding a laudable goal of avoiding that.

Which is the reality for most teens. They’re going to drink, and the vast majority are going to do it at times where there is little to no parental supervision. Teaching teens strategies for how to deal with the problematic mixture of alcohol and driving ahead of time, how to make responsible and better decisions when it comes to drinking, and how to avoid drinking and driving go hand-in-hand. You cannot have alcohol education be an abstinence-first policy and have drinking and driving education be properly received or understood by the audience.

You don’t stop drinking and driving by keeping people away from alcohol. Look what happened in The Great Gatsby – prohibition didn’t keep a bunch of drunk people from getting into cars and causing an accident. Or, look to a non-fictional source for the same point: alcohol prohibition did not work, and did not stop drunk driving.

These recommendations fail to take into account realities of teenagehood and also neglect the failures of other abstinence-based education programs. The only effective way, in my opinion, to prevent drunk driving is through proper education and enforcement. Education must begin early, and must include education about alcohol use and how it impacts the elements that are used in driving in order for it to be effective.

18 thoughts on “Alcohol, Abstinence, and Drinking and Driving”

  1. Once upon a time in UBC fraternity houses the RCMP would come in each year, with a big old breathalyzer, and do a presentation. 1 (fraternity) member would have 2 beers during the presentation, 1 would have 4 shots and another would drink pretty hard in the hours leading up to the presentation. Then they’d start testing everyone. Both breath tests and mock roadside tests. Pretty memorable and got the point across pretty quick and effectively. The 120 lb 19 year old blew over the limit on 2 beers. The 240lb senior was half the limit on 4 shots.

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