Throughout this year, we've focused on alcohol and driving. We've looked at the scale of the problem and delved into the way alcohol affects driving. And in this conclusion to our three-part overview of the issue, we ask a single question: is there a way South Africa could take the message of sober road use to such a diverse selection of drivers as ours?
As we noted in a previous article, the 1991 Project RID drink / drive experiment catapulted the risks of drinking and driving into the headlines at a time when driving after drinking was almost routine. Business lunches were generally accompanied by alcohol, parties and functions were rarely dry, and there was little social stigma attached to departing the bar for the car.
But times have changed. In mainstream business and social circles, tolerance for those who drive after drinking is ebbing away. Public transport is slowly improving, and people who drink are now willingly opting for a passenger seat, thanks to services like the AA's Designated Driver and social groups where one person agrees to stay sober and drive the rest.
What's concerning is that as the social acceptability of drinking and driving declined, drinking rates increased. Fewer than 50% of road users killed in crashes were found to be under the influence in the late 1990s. That rose to 55% by 2008, with drivers as a group even higher at 58%. There is a lack of data since 2008, but if indicators like the Christmas and Easter death tolls are a fair barometer of road safety, the AA's belief is that alcohol use on our roads remains at 2008 levels or worse.
But why, in this enlightened era? Licensing corruption is a likely candidate. There's no need to revisit the background, but if someone bought or forged their licence, they are likely to have low concern about road safety and might fall outside the net of drink / drive messaging or social pressure.
Then there are the drivers who grew up drinking and driving and may not have lost the habit. The weekend binge-drinking of their youth is likely to have given way to regular, more restrained alcohol consumption over meals or at social functions, frequently followed by driving. Drivers in the 36 to 60 year-old age group consistently had the highest alcohol drinking rates of any age range throughout the 1990s. One interpretation of this is that a change in lifestyle with age means older drivers are more likely to be on the roads after drinking, albeit probably not in the heavily-inebriated state of their younger counterparts.
But this age group is a tough nut to crack – it's hard to persuade someone who has survived decades of driving after drinking that they should be re-thinking their behaviour.
There are two additional groups of drivers that concern us. The first is those who drive for a living, but may not own their own vehicles. They are less likely to drive after hours, but if called upon to do so, would they decline after a few drinks? Are they as susceptible to campaigns against drinking and driving as drivers who own a vehicle?
The other group of concern has some overlap with most of the other groups: those who have limited literacy, especially if they live in rural areas less saturated by the media. They may be open to anti- drink / drive messaging, but is it reaching them, and does it come in a form they will respond to?
Our group of least concern is teenagers and young adults. This might seem surprising, because it's well-known that young drivers are the most at-risk age group for traffic fatalities. Two decades ago, they had the dual risks of low skill levels and alcohol, but with more people attending formal schooling than ever before, and the penetration of Internet-enabled communication in this age group, they are well-placed to not only receive and understand anti- drink / drive messaging, but to use social media tools to put it into practice. Organising a designated driver for a party in 1990 was a chore. Now it's as close as a smartphone.
Also, today's 20 year-olds grew up in a culture which was already beginning to frown on driving under the influence. Future generations will be even better informed, and our expectation for the next decade or two is that the mainstream youth will be the flagbearers for driving sober.
But what about the rest of the population? With a high-budget awareness campaign targeted at each risk group, it's possible mindsets could be changed. To design and implement such a campaign would be a large-scale undertaking, suited only to government. It would require funding and political will, but we believe it could be done.
And until it is, the only line of defence is enforcement. The laboratory services for testing blood samples are heavily backlogged and questions over evidential breath testing linger, making successful prosecutions difficult. Even if the prosecution success rate was 100%, the numbers game is not promising – only about 3000 people per month are charged with a drink / drive offence. With previous research having indicated that more than half of drivers on the roads are under the influence after 18h00, the arrest rate is neglibible. We imagine this situation must be highly demoralising for traffic officials who watch people that were staggering drunk when arrested being let off for lack of a strong case.
But it is clear that something must be done – too many people lose their lives to drinking and driving for improvement to be left solely to the slow decline in its social acceptability. South Africa's only option is government intervention on a broad scale. And the sooner, the better.