Part 3: The Amorality of Drunk Driving

August 17, 2012 BY danariely

Over the past week I have blogged about the amorality of drunk driving and critiqued some of the policies attempting to curb drunk driving. Drawing from behavioral economics research and the comments I received, I have drafted 4 ways to combat Drunk Driving. Finally, I included a one-way caveat about why this problem will remain difficult.

#1 Friends need to speak up.  “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” is a great slogan and I have followed that slogan my entire life. However, most nights I am working late in the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Thus most nights I am not with my peers while they are drinking and potentially driving.  I think a better slogan would be “Friends tell their friends that drunk driving is wrong.”  I find myself always nodding and laughing to others’ stories of drunk driving, when I should be expressing my disapproval. Jonathan Haidt (author of The Righteous Mind) argues that gossip and social disapproval can help regulate morality.

#2 Clean Slate.  One problem with drunk driving is that most people likely to offend have already offended and may have even been arrested. We need a way for people to say, “That was a mistake and I won’t do it again.” I am personally looking into this clean slate idea and hope to provide some clarity in the near future.

#3 Stigmatize.  How to properly calibrate appeals and accomplish this will be difficult but we need to make drunk driving look disgusting rather than sexy (as I think some ad campaigns do). We can call on some of the smoking ads which made smoking seem less attractive and attractive people condemn smoking. Backlash may occur, but a systematic and well-funded experimental research program should discover something nuanced enough to work. This means the government needs to team up with researchers and conduct large-scale experiments. University researchers can come up with theories to guide policy, but policymakers need to calibrate these theories into efficacious policy.

#4 Remove the Fudge Factor.  How many times have you heard people say “I am not drunk, I can drive.” No matter how much you try and convince them they are drunk, they protest. However, if you could show them via a breathalyzer that their blood alcohol content was above the legal limit, then people (even when drunk) might have a harder time justifying getting behind the wheel. Would mandatory breathalyzers at bars reduce drunk driving? It is an empirical question worth answering.

Another possibility is to adopt the Alcohol Anonymous practice of saying, “One drink is one drink too many.” If one could not drink period, then any drinking makes one cross the line. If there was a large public awareness campaign (integrated with alcohol companies’ ads) indicating that designated drivers do not drink one drink, this could potentially be effective.

A Final Caveat.  Some readers used psychological research to claim that threats of punishment might be the only thing that will work. They argued, because people who drive drunk do not think they are endangering others, they do not think they are engaging in any moral violation. Thus if drunk driving is not seen as a moral violation then only the assurance of random checkpoints and breathalyzer tests will curb drunk driving. I think this speaks to my point. All drunk driving policy is shortsighted; it asks what could we do right now to reduce drunk driving. It does not consider the effectiveness of developing national moral standards or engaging in rigorous experimental research (though some does exist). However, as I have argued above, I think we can and need to transform drunk driving into more of a moral issue.

~Troy Campbell~