Europe has a drinking (and driving) problem

MARIELLA RADAELLI and JON VAN HOUSEN

Europe has a drinking problem, at least in combination with driving. The lands that largely invented fine wines, great beers, champagne and a range of liquors also has tens of thousands of deaths and disabilities from alcohol and drug-related road accidents each year.

“Every single year in the European Union, the number of dead from drinking and driving is equivalent to the population of a small town being wiped out,” says Andrew McNeill from the Institute of Alcohol Studies. “And every single one of those deaths is avoidable.”
Unemployment Italy, English news
Roadside sobriety check: On average some 3.48 percent of drivers in the European Union drive with alcohol in their blood, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

While it’s not as bad as North America, the toll in Europe has long been cause for concern. It also poses a challenge to producers. In countries known for humanist philosophies and a range of regulations, makers of alcohol want to ensure they are not held liable. One is Heineken beer, a major sponsor of the F1 racing circuit. It runs a top-quality television ad during every race featuring iconic driver Jackie Stewart refusing a beer with the statement “no thanks, I’m driving”.

But in Europe alcohol is embedded in history, cultures and customs. In many countries the first taste of alcohol might come from grandpa slipping a child a small glass of wine at a Sunday feast. In some cultures wine with meals is considered as crucial as bread.

A study by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction in Lisbon “has calculated that on average 3.48 percent of drivers in the European Union drive with alcohol in their blood, 1.9 percent with illicit drugs, 1.4 percent with medicinal drugs and 0.37 percent with a combination of alcohol and drugs,” says Brendan Hughes, a scientific analyst at center.

The biggest danger could be posed by young drinkers not accustomed to the effects or lacking perspective on how much they can safely drink. “Even a small blood alcohol concentration may impair the driving ability of young, inexperienced drivers significantly,” says Dr. Horst Schulze at the German Federal Highway Research Institute BAST.

And Anja Knoche, also from BAST, notes “a drunk driver is 7 to 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than an un-impaired driver. A driver who has cannabis in their system is twice as likely.”

As a result policymakers continue to study what to do about it. Dr. Peter Anderson, professor of Substance Use, Policy and Practice at Newcastle University in the UK, says “policies that regulate the alcohol market, including the price of alcohol, the location, density, and opening hours of sales outlets, minimum legal purchase ages and controls on the availability of alcohol, and its promotion and advertising, can all have an impact in reducing drinking and driving fatalities”.

“Driver education, rehabilitation and treatment programs linked to penalties, based on agreed evidence-based guidelines and protocols, should be implemented throughout Europe,” he says.

While alcohol remains the drug of choice, other psychoactive substances are also found in drivers involved in accidents.

“Of the drugs analyzed, cannabis is the most prevalent after alcohol, although benzodiazepines, when samples have been analyzed for these, are sometimes even more prevalent,” says Hughes. “Statistically, the use of amphetamines, cannabis, benzodiazepines, heroin and cocaine is associated with an increased risk of being involved in an accident, and in many cases this risk increases when the drug is combined with another substance such as alcohol.”

Yet “alcohol, especially in high concentrations, must remain the principal focus of prevention measures”, he says.

According to a World Health Organisation study, the highest rate of alcohol-related road deaths is in South Africa, where some 58 percent of fatalities involve alcohol. Second is Canada at 34 percent and the U.S. at 31 percent. But France (29 percent), Italy (25 percent) and the UK (19 percent) also have relatively high ratios.

The entire subject is fraught with uncertainty as countries vary greatly in legal limits, testing and statistics. Testing for drugs remains widely inconsistent.

Yet the good news might be the very prevalence of alcohol in daily European life could help limit its damage on the roads. Studies show that European youth are far less likely than their American counterparts to drink to intoxication at social events. Some see strict U.S. values and laws on the drinking age as a ticking bomb. When they finally reach the legal drinking age of 21, American youth can go to the extreme in binge intoxication.

Another factor limiting the toll in Europe it its vast public transport system. Virtually every corner of Western Europe is served by train services, while in many countries across the globe that is far from the case. In the sprawling expanses of the U.S., a car is required to get to most places.

In Europe as a whole, drunk driving deaths have been falling over the past decade, according to the European Transport Safety Council. The reductions have been most marked in the Czech Republic, Belgium and Germany. Only in Hungary, Lithuania, Finland, Spain and Great Britain has the problem has become worse.

To many Europeans a social drink means conviviality. Experts and governments are working to ensure it doesn’t turn into carnage.

A version of this story appeared in the Khaleej Times of Dubai.