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One for the Road

One of the startling things about living in the US is the chilled out approach people have to drink driving. For anyone coming from the UK or Ireland, it’s a bit of a shock to realize that people here are happy to drive home after 3 …4 …5 pints.

My generation in the UK grew up while our parents were going through a change in mindset. In the early 80s it was fairly standard to be a bit tipsy and drive home, but by the time I learned to drive, it wasn’t an option – you wouldn’t do it, you wouldn’t let your friends drink & drive, and it’s not accepted as relevant.

I had a look to see if the data supports this anecdotal evidence. Since the 80s, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of deaths caused by drink driving in both the US and the UK. But deaths per 100k in the US are still nearly three times those in the UK: 3.21 vs 0.36.

(See Chart 1 below for more data and sources).

So what’s made this mindshift take hold in the UK? How has the government managed to effect behavioural and cultural change?

UK campaign

The UK anti-drink-driving campaign began in 1964, with a jolly video, with a Saul Bass aesthetic, reminding you that after eight whiskies you’re twenty-five times more likely to have an accident. This is no-nonsense messaging: driving when drunk will cause an accident.

(Bonus – a Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike at 0.09)

It wasn’t until the early 80s that the ads became more hard-hitting. In combination with stronger enforcement (breathalyser tests became commonplace), in the 80s the messages focused on the impact being prosecuted would have on the driver. They’d lose their jobs, or their license.

By the 90s, the messaging shifted: moving to the impact your drink-driving actions would have on others. This third phase aimed to create the idea that to drive drunk was unacceptable in today’s society – you would make yourself a pariah. This video is a close-up on a little girl called Kathy, who is listening whilst her mum shouts at Kathy’s father for killing a girl whilst driving drunk.

“She heard a kid at school say you were a murderer.”

(Video directed by Tony Kay, who went on to direct American History X)

This approach is the key to the cultural shift that we experienced.

This message means that you expect yourself to behave in a certain way. And this gets reinforced by your peer group, who have also set these expectations for themselves.

US campaign

In the US, the blood alcohol limits are the same as in the UK – 0.8%. The punishment in California can be pretty stringent – first DUI can get you a bundle of punishment, including up to 6 months in prison. But there hasn’t been the same societal shift, so people still nod and wink at ‘one for the road’.

Some theories around why this is:

  • Messaging: This has been more focused on the direct effects of drink-driving; on possible death, or punishment. But not as focused around the ‘shame’ of being convicted of a DUI. There have been some hard-hitting videos featuring video footage of the victims, but the core premise since 1983 has been ‘Friends don’t let friends drive drunk’. Which hasn’t done the same job of creating a culture where it’s unacceptable to drink and drive.
  • A later start: The US campaign only really began in the early 80s, with the formation of MADD and the Ad Council getting involved in producing public service announcements.
  • Investment: across a massive country, it’s incredibly expensive to fund comms that will spread across a population 5 times the size of the UK. I’ve never seen any comms on this in the three years since I’ve been here.
  • Appetite for government messaging: the US have a much more laissez-faire approach to authorities ‘meddling’ – what’s fairly standard in the UK would be seen as very nanny state in the US.


Shifting mindsets is incredibly difficult. This success in the UK made me ponder not just whether it could be applied in the US, but how else we could use the power of societal expectations? We wouldn’t want to take tips from Septa Unella and her bell of shame… but there is an opportunity to look at using this to change opinions in some of the big schisms facing us today.

Appendix – The data

Chart 1

The topline comparison of the data I’ve referred to in the paragraph above:

The data looks at fatalities caused by drink-driving, as these figures are accessible online. Convictions due to drink-driving seem to be much more difficult to come by.

For a more detailed breakdown of how I calculated these figures, click here to download (excel spreadsheet).

This chart has been built from the following references:

  1. http://www.madd.org/drunk-driving/about/history.html
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2013/aug/01/drink-drive-deaths-number-changed-over-time
  3. http://www.drinkdriving.org/drink_driving_statistics_uk.php
  4. http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL

Additional references used for the article:

  1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/motoring/road-safety/11215676/50-years-of-drink-driving-campaigns.html
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/92-of-people-feel-ashamed-to-drink-and-drive-as-50th-anniversary-think-campaign-is-launched
  3. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29894885
  4. http://dui.drivinglaws.org/california.php
  5. http://www.adcouncil.org/Our-Campaigns/Safety/Buzzed-Driving-Prevention


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