Feature: Women and drink driving: a growing problem?

12.00 | 19 December 2014 | | 2 comments

A report published earlier this year highlighted the growing proportion of drink driving convictions received by women – up from 9% in 1998 to 17% in 2012. The report, co-authored by Kris Beuret, Claire Corbett and Heather Ward, calls for the drink drive limit to be reduced “to reflect the effect of alcohol on women’s bodies” and for road safety messages to make clear that drink driving is not a just a male problem. While we covered the study in a news item at the time, we thought readers may be interested in a more in-depth look at its findings.

The study was based on a combination of a literature review, face-to-face surveys with 430 women drivers, 20 in-depth interviews with convicted women drivers and statistical analysis of data relating to more than 150,000 motorists with a drink driving offence.

The literature review found that while overall rates of alcohol consumption are falling, among affluent older women drinking is on the increase. It also identified evidence of a lack of awareness among women of what constitutes a unit of alcohol, and how much they can drink before being above the legal drink drive limit.

Key findings

A quarter of the women in the survey drank either most days or every day, with three quarters citing wine as their usual drink.

The most usual place for these women to drink is in the home – either their own or someone else’s. In terms of quantity, respondents claimed to drink less at home than when out, although they acknowledged it is harder to know what measure is being used at home.

Almost 60% of respondents claimed never to drive after drinking alcohol, with women above the age of 50yrs the least likely to do so. Comparison with a small male sample indicated that men are nearly twice as likely to drive after drinking alcohol than women.

Respondents’ knowledge about how much they can drink and remain under the legal limit was described by the researchers as “poor overall, and in some cases potentially inaccurate”.

More than a third of respondents thought they could drive legally after drinking a pint or more of beer which the study says “could place at least some women at risk of a drink-drive offence”. And almost 15% thought they could drink more than a standard (175 cc) glass of wine – which equates to at least two units – and still drive safely. This lack of awareness of the risk of being over the limit was also apparent among some of the women convicted of drink driving.

While driving when ‘over the limit’ appears to be infrequent for most respondents, 5% of those aged 40-49yrs indicated it was a more frequent occurrence.

Comparison with the male sample indicated than men were more likely to occasionally drive when they considered they were over the legal limit (42% of men against 15% of women).

The most common reason given for driving over the limit was not necessity, but that they felt it was ‘OK’ to drive – in other words they thought they could drive without an incident or accident, and without getting caught.

The researchers say that, to some extent, this is reinforced by the fact that anti-drink advertising predominantly features men, which led to a view that women are relatively ‘under the radar’ in terms of being breathalysed.

Almost all of those questioned (90%) said they would be concerned or very concerned by the prospect of being driven by someone who they thought was over the limit. However, interestingly, those who indicated they had driven while over the limit were very much less likely to be very concerned than those who had not (30% compared with more than 80%).

Conclusions and recommendations

The researchers concluded that several important messages relating to drinking and driving “are not getting across sufficiently well”, and suggest a need for greater emphasis on communicating how drinking alcohol seriously impairs driving ability. 

They call for messaging to convince women that “driving carefully is no solution”, that getting caught is a real risk, and that there is “almost always an alternative to drink driving”.

The report also suggests that the recommended maximum consumption limits for alcohol in the UK “may reflect average male metabolism and be too high for women’s bodies”. 

Finally, it says “the emphasis on advertising and education about drink and alcohol needs to redress the male bias and develop campaigns and projects specifically targeted at women”. 

‘Drinking among British women and its impact on their pedestrian and driving habits’ is authored by Kris Beuret (SRA), Claire Corbett (Brunel University) and Heather Ward (UCL). The research was funded by the Rees Jeffries Road Foundation and Direct Line Insurance Group. It is available for download from the Social Research Associates website.



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    In my experience very few people (regardless of age or gender) know what constitutes a unit of alcohol. This is a huge issue in people knowing what they have consumed, especially when you look to the morning after in terms of drink driving and calculating when your body is free of alcohol.

    Also, the research “identified evidence of a lack of awareness among women of … how much they can drink before being above the legal drink drive limit”. This implies that it is possible to know, which is unlikely. Surely the answer is to drink no alcohol if you are going to drive! Everyone is different and everyone is unpredictable. Be safe, go for zero tolerance. One Unit = One Hour!

    Rhiannon, Lancashire
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    My own seat of the pants feelings are confirmed by this study. Alcohol use seems to have become the norm for many modern women in the same way as it always has been for a lot of young men.

    With the differences in the speed with which male and female bodies process alcohol, would it be better to move towards a zero limit for all, rather than a lower limit for women? At least then we would all know exactly where we stood in relation to how many drinks we could consume while remaining beneath the drink/drive limit.

    David, Suffolk
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