December 28, 2009

Designating a Driver: The Short-sighted Non-solution

New Year’s Eve will arrive this week.  Each time we reboot the calendar it’s an occasion for much celebrating, much drinking, and many needless deaths.  And everywhere I look, I see yet another reminder: Don’t drink and drive.  X thousand people died on the highway last year; don’t let this happen to you!  Be a designated driver.  And so on.  By one account, about 148 million people have served as – or have been helped by – such a benevolent volunteer.    As I pondered these weighty matters today, a terrifying revelation came upon me:

I have become my grandmother.

Yes, it’s true.  And my friend Tom, a decorated officer with the California Highway Patrol.  And my other friend Charlotte, a public health nurse for the County of Los Angeles.  And every intolerant self-righteous religious prude in town, for that matter, because for once in my life I actually find myself agreeing with all of them.

Yikes.  Go figure.

This designated-driver concept was actually conceived in Scandinavia back in the 1920s, but somehow it took another 60 years or so to gain traction on this side of the pond.  It’s impossible to know the exact numbers, but I’m confident that thousands of lives have been saved, along with thousands of vehicles perhaps even billions in property damage and medical bills.

But what, exactly, is the broader lesson here?  As with all things involving fallible humans these savings come at a cost, and I wonder if we’re being penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Just the other day, I saw this billboard a few blocks from my home.  Essentially the fine folks at Anheuser-Busch tell us that if you meet a pretty girl at a bar, and you want to take her home, it’s perfectly fine as long as you let her drive.  Hmmm…

I wonder, have the titans of St. Louis bothered to examine the full implications of this message?

Designating a driver means that it’s perfectly OK to get drunk, as long as you don’t drive.  It means that your friends can sit back and watch as you get plastered, knowing the consequences but not caring enough to intervene.  You might get home uninjured, but then what?  You remain an alcoholic, yell at your wife, kick the dog, beat the  kids, barf on the dining room table, and miss work the next day because of your hangover.  You dodged a bullet this time, but where will you be at midnight tomorrow?

Remarkably, the marketing people at Busch have figured out that sex sells. Hey handsome, come on over to my place. What happens when a woman goes home with a stranger she met only an hour ago?  Often, it means that she gets raped.  Or robbed.  Or infected with some exotic disease.  Or worse. Oh, and did I mention that the guy is already stoned out of his gourd? Yes, she knows, but she charges ahead anyway.

So you’re too young to drink?  All is not lost; you can still enjoy the benefits of this twisted logic.  Just go to your friendly neighborhood school nurse, and she will be happy to give you a condom upon request.  Yes, technically, 14 year-olds shouldn’t be having sex.  But c’mon, they’re gonna do it anyway, right?  Let’s enable their bad choices, and make sure that it’s safe sex.  Hey, you don’t suppose they’ll enjoy it, and make plans to hook up more often?  Nah, that never happens.

I have some experience here, because alcoholism runs in my family. My father drove home drunk at least once a week (with the occasional month or two of attempted sobriety here and there) for over thirty years. And he had a spotless driving record.  Never a fender bender, never a scratch or dent on his car.  He knew how to work the system, running between the raindrops, always staying one step ahead of the law, the ambulance, the tow truck.

But he, like millions of others (and their families), paid a steep price for his failings nonetheless.  He died a broken man at 65, in a family where most men live well into their eighties.  Designating a driver would make no difference for someone like him, apart from the inconvenience of retrieving his car the following morning.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the occasional cocktail when dining out with friends. I’m not anti-booze, just anti-stupid.  A ride home from a bar, or a condom for a teen, merely trades one problem for ten others.

They say that friends don’t let friends drive drunk.  I say a friend doesn’t let a friend get drunk in the first place.  We should be teaching our children ethics, to help them stay out of trouble; but instead we simply show them how to avoid the consequences when they inevitably do.

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