Thoughts on drinking and driving

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <ams@toroid.org>

2009-03-20

I never drink alcohol if I expect to be driving within the next several hours.

This is a rule that I have observed strictly ever since I started driving. The closest I've come to breaking it is driving some two hours after drinking less than half a glass of red wine with my dinner, and I've only ever done that once.

In countries where DUI offenses are strictly prosecuted, this would be entirely normal. Not so in Delhi where, for example, the police's idea of a "crackdown" on drunken driving involved not letting drivers go after they had been fined. Of course, hardly anyone is ever caught.

It's not that I'm afraid of being caught. Nor is it the case that I can't "hold my alcohol"; quite the contrary. My body mass is high enough that, with the small quantities I typically drink, I've never come close to being intoxicated. It's just a matter of principle.

People seem to consider it a joke when I explain that I will not drink because I have to drive home, as if it's just a matter of overcoming a little resistance I'm putting up for the sake of form, and that I'll join them in drinking heavily afterwards. "Do you think we'll be walking home?", I've been asked. It's very tiring to explain, round after round, that no, I really will not drink this time either.

The consequences of doing otherwise were brought home to me in a terrifying manner not too long ago. After an evening with some friends who were drinking, and who did their best to get me to join them, one of them had some car trouble when we were about to leave. He popped the hood to have a look, and tried to prop it up (by placing the tip of this metal rod into a keyhole-shaped indent in the hood). He tried thrice, but he couldn't get the alignment right. Someone else leaned over and had a go—he couldn't do it either. I tried, and managed it the first time.

Until then, I hadn't realised quite so vividly just how impaired the reflexes of my friends really were, even when they seemed reasonably sober, and were completely convinced of their ability to drive home safely. (A minor incident, isn't it? As terrifying alcohol-related experiences go, however, I prefer mine in no stronger doses.)

Delhi is full of people who are too drunk to be driving. And I realise all of a sudden that I know some of these people; even genuinely like and admire (other things about) many of them. They're just intoxicated enough to pose some elevated risk to themselves and other without realising it, which seems to me the most insidious danger.

I could pretend to not drink alcohol at all. In India, that's something that seems to be accepted without too much fuss, and it would certainly be very convenient to not have to constantly defend or explain myself. But that would make it easier for people around me to ignore the fact that their own behaviour is (criminally) irresponsible. So I'm prepared to forego that convenience.

I certainly don't expect to instantly convert people to being more responsible about their alcohol consumption. I sometimes feel that even wanting to make people think harder about what they are doing is too much to hope for.

But I will not drink when I have to drive, and I will not lie about why not.