The general prevention of drinking and driving

Criminology Research Council grant ; (11/87)

The products of this research, comprising various papers and journal articles, have been bound in one volume under the project's title.

The overall purpose of the research was to explore the general preventive effects of drink-drive law. The research developed the work of Homel (1986) on general deterrence, and extended the international research of Snortum, Berger and their colleagues to Australia. Since Australia has a relatively high rate of alcohol consumption but also appears to have one of the most successful drink-drive countermeasures in random breath testing (RBT), the extension of the international research to Australia added a new dimension to our understanding of the impact of drink-drive law in Australia. Comparisons were drawn specifically with the USA and Norway.

The Australian survey, completed in June 1988 by ANOP, included face-to-face interviews with 1,505 drivers over the age of 17, 1,133 of whom drank at least once per year. The survey was carried out in rural and metropolitan areas of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. At the time of the study neither Queensland nor WA had RBT, although both had had vigorous "random stopping programs". A prediction of the study, which was confirmed, was that NSW respondents would report higher levels of compliance, be more deterred, and be more condemning of drink-driving behaviour.

The interview schedule sought information in four areas: (a) behaviour - usual alcohol consumption, details of alcohol consumed and travel arrangements on the last occasion on which alcohol was consumed away from home, etc.; (b) exposure to and perceptions of formal and informal sanctions - perceptions of the risk of apprehension, moral beliefs about drinking and driving, perceived pressure from friends, etc.; (c) knowledge - penalties and regulations, understanding of the relationship between alcohol consumption and blood alcohol concentration (BAC); and (d) population descriptors - age, sex, etc.

Striking differences in social norms, attitudes, and behaviours surrounding drinking and driving were found in the three countries. Norway appeared to have progressed farthest toward general prevention, whereas Australia relied more on general deterrence, reflecting the impact of RBT in the most populous States. Both general deterrence and general prevention appeared relatively weak in the US.

Self-reported violations were considerably higher in Australia and the US than in Norway. Australia reported more often than drivers in the other two countries that they travelled by motor vehicle to a drinking occasion in the last two weeks. This illustrates the structural pressures to drink and drive in Australia and the relative lack of planning to use other methods of transport.

Norwegians and Australians had a better knowledge of the law than Americans. Australians were less cynical than Americans about the operation of the law, and reported more often than Americans that fear of arrest is the main reason for exercising control. Australians had a stronger moral commitment to drink-driving laws than Americans, but not as strong as Norwegians.

Comparing States of Australia, the analysis suggested that regardless of State, many Australian drivers attempt to comply with drink-driving laws. An important result was that many drinkers who normally drank very heavily moderated their consumption on the last occasion on which they drank away from home, although a majority of the heavier drinkers elected not to drive. This tends to confirm the deterrent impact of RBT on heavy drinkers reported by Homel (1988).

Of immense theoretical and practical importance, nearly two-thirds of NSW young drivers reported that when with friends they used police breath testing as an excuse to limit their drinking, compared with only one-third of WA young drivers. The overall evidence for the far greater intensity of police enforcement of drink-driving laws in NSW compared with WA was overwhelming. There is clear evidence that the intensive enforcement of RBT in NSW had succeeded in changing the social environment of RBT in NSW, and that beliefs about drinking and driving were beginning to change as a result of the enforcement and publicity of the law.