As the holidays are approaching, inebriated driving is going to happen and people will die as a result. Is the drunk driver to blame? Yes…but there’s more to the picture than simply someone who made one bad decision, and it’s important to understand why people get behind the wheel to drive.
In psychology, we have a term called desensitization, which describes the loss of an emotional response after repeated exposure to a stimulus. Usually, what we target in psychology is the fear response seen disorders like phobias or PTSD. In fact, short term exposure therapy works very well for these disorders – if you gradually and safely expose someone to the thing that produces fear, the brain learns that it’s not that dangerous, the body’s physiological reaction calms down quickly, and the fear response is drastically reduced in a small amount of time. It’s biology and psychology in a neat little package. The effectiveness of this approach is reflected in colloquialisms such as “face your fears” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
However, there’s another side of desensitization that can prove damaging. Although fear can and often does hold us back from good things in our lives, fear has a very important purpose. Fear is a basic emotion that humans evolved to have because, simply, it keeps us alive. At a low level, fear can be considered part of our moral compass or even intuition, and at a higher level, it leads to our fast-acting survival response. Fear serves to protect us from danger and keep us safe, but this emotion can be dulled or desensitized if we repeatedly put ourselves in dangerous situations but don’t experience a negative outcome.
It is easy to feel that we are fine to drive after a couple drinks, and, given our BAC, we very well may be. However, if we get used to driving after a couple drinks and nothing bad happens, we may be more likely to make the decision to drive after 3-4 drinks. If we’re used to driving after 3 drinks and one night we have a 5+, it is more likely that we will decide to drive, because we are used to driving, nothing bad has happened in the past, and we are unaware of how we are impaired. Repeatedly driving under the influence, even if minimal, desensitizes us to the act of driving under the influence. If the fear response is gone, someone is much more likely to get behind the wheel out of habit. Essentially, people train themselves to lose fear of something they should fear, and intuition and judgment become skewed.
Is driving after a few drinks one time going to lead to something bad? Maybe not. Is making the decision to drive after a few drinks dangerous? Yes, not necessarily because our driving is deemed as unsafe (the BAC may be at a legal level), but because we are forming a bad habit and increasing the chance that we will drive in the future.
So, if you see someone making the decision to drive after a few drinks, saying “it might not be safe to drive” is accurate, but for more than one reason. There is the risk of something bad happening immediately, and the risk of allowing a bad habit to form that increases risk in the future. Sometimes people respond with “I’ll be fine!” and there’s not much of a wiggle room if they’re desensitized to the risk. This season, try saying “I believe you, but it’s a bad habit to get used to, so let me call you an Uber.”
***Note: it is always important to consider BAC and drinks/time when calculating if you are "ok" to drive. Click here for a BAC calculator and be aware of your state's laws. Also, keep yourself sensitized to the risk of inebriated driving by not driving after a couple drinks, ever.
December is "National Impaired Driving Prevention Month." See more info at the DUI Foundation.