How the war on drunk driving was won

Blog by Nick Cowen: “…Viewed from the 1960s it might have seemed like ending drunk driving would be impossible. Even in the 1980s, the movement seemed unlikely to succeed and many researchers questioned whether it constituted a social problem at all.

Yet things did change: in 1980, 1,450 fatalities were attributed to drunk driving accidents in the UK. In 2020, there were 220. Road deaths in general declined much more slowly, from around 6,000 in 1980 to 1,500 in 2020. Drunk driving fatalities dropped overall and as a percentage of all road deaths.

The same thing happened in the United States, though not to quite the same extent. In 1980, there were around 28,000 drunk driving deaths there, while in 2020, there were 11,654. Despite this progress, drunk driving remains a substantial public threat, comparable in scale to homicide (of which in 2020 there were 594 in Britain and 21,570 in America).

Of course, many things have happened in the last 40 years that contributed to this reduction. Vehicles are better designed to prioritize life preservation in the event of a collision. Emergency hospital care has improved so that people are more likely to survive serious injuries from car accidents. But, above all, driving while drunk has become stigmatized.

This stigma didn’t come from nowhere. Governments across the Western world, along with many civil society organizations, engaged in hard-hitting education campaigns about the risks of drunk driving. And they didn’t just talk. Tens of thousands of people faced criminal sanctions, and many were even put in jail.

Two underappreciated ideas stick out from this experience. First, deterrence works: incentives matter to offenders much more than many scholars found initially plausible. Second, the long-run impact that successful criminal justice interventions have is not primarily in rehabilitation, incapacitation, or even deterrence, but in altering the social norms around acceptable behavior…(More)”.