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Reducing Drink Driving - the positve effects of labels


Who's Bob? Why do all these women look so happy carrying a "Bob" sign?

We'll come back to that. 

First, a very awkward and abrupt segue to celebrate my inadequate writing skills.

Drink driving is a serious problem in many countries. In the US there are over 10,000 deaths per year because of drunk drivers - one death every 50 minutes. In South Africa, about 10 people are caught drink-driving every hour. 

What's more interesting though is examining the behavioural science of drink driving and why efforts to reduce drink driving is rarely successful.

  1. Almost everyone will agree that drinking and driving is dangerous. So people don't drink and drive because they don't know it's dangerous. They just can't resist the temptation.

  2. This might seem quite hard to fathom. Why would people put their own lives, and the lives of others at risk, by drinking and driving? They could kill themselves! But this behaviour is extremely common, including for you and I. We are actually quite adept at harming ourselves because of temptation - think about the number of health diseases that come from over-eating or respiratory conditions from smoking, or other accidents from texting while driving, or not observing proper hygiene. Or ignoring the possibility of getting the coronavirus because we want to go to the beach. 

  3. Additionally, the decision of whether to risk drink-driving by definition comes after people have drunk alcohol. This means that their decision-making ability has been compromised by alcohol.

  4. So people don't drink drive because they don't know they should be drink-driving, and yet we try to solve drink-driving by using methods which are the easiest and most comfortable for us - by giving information that is already known. We can't resist the temptation
    We tell people they might die. They already know this.
    We tell people they might kill others. They already know this.
    We tell people they face harsh penalties if caught. They already know this.
    We tell people the ones who will really suffer if anything happens are loved ones. They already know (admittedly, this is more effective than the others because it triggers an emotional response)


So we really shouldn't be surprised that telling people what they already know doesn't work out. But what is it that we can do instead? Time to bring in the ladies' man - BOB. 


The Bob campaign was developed by Belgium in 1995, which aimed to tackle the drink driving issue in a different way, by promoting the role of a designated driver - "Bob"**. 

The Bob campaign has been reasonably successful. Before we examine why this has been the case, let's look at some of its achievements:

  • Based on figures from the Belgian Road Safety Institute, more than 1/3 of Belgians have performed "Bob" duties, and close to half of the population have been driven home by a "Bob". 1/4 of Belgians say that they do not speak to people who do not have a designated Bob.

  • The number of drink driving cases has decreased by about 20% overall since the Bob campaign was launched. 

  • After Belgium, Netherlands, France, Germany and Luxembourg all adopted the Bob Campaign (in different names)

  • In the Netherlands, "Bob" has entered popular language. "Bob jij of Bob in?" or "Do you Bob or am I Bob" was such a widely used phrase that it has been included in Dutch dictionaries. 

  • Since the start of the campaign in the Netherlands, the number of drunk drivers out of all motorists checked dropped from 4% at first to 1.7% in 2015. 

  • 2/3s of people polled in the Netherlands claim they always make Bob arrangements. 

While drink driving rates have decreased in every country that has introduced the Bob campaign, drink driving does still remain an issue. This indicates that several solutions are needed to solve a complex problem like drink-driving. 

**(Contrary to popular belief, BOB does not stand for "Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder", Dutch that translates to "consciously non-drunk driver" or 'deliberately sober driver'.  It was just a random name picked by the Belgian government. But the fact people developed the association themselves is an indication of how much awareness the Bob campaign has raised). 

Why has the Bob Campaign worked?

There are 2 major reasons why the "Bob Campaign" has been more successful than traditional campaigns:

  1. It offers a solution and not admonishment. Think about all the traditional campaigns to discourage drink-driving. It's very starkly negative. It's about people dying, and you being irresponsible, and heavy penalties if caught and so on. This triggers your amygdala (find out more here) - the part of the brain responsible for fear, anger, anxiety, and aggression. It feels like you are under attack, and you need to do something about it. And what you do is to simply ignore the message coming in. You cognitively already know that drink-driving is not right, but when you're looking forward to a good time out an then this wave of negativity hits you and judges you, you tune out. (find out more about examples where we simply ignore painful advice here)

    In contrast, the Bob Campaign offers a solution. You don't need to face a barrage of negativity and dying when you're out for a good time. You just need to find a designated driver. And you don't always need to be "Bob". You can take turns, it's not that painful. 


  2. It introduces a positive label. It might be very difficult to resist drinking and to be the designated driver for the night. Think about it, everyone is having fun, and you're not. But the positive label helps tremendously. When people ask you why you're not drinking, you have a perfect answer - you're Bob for the night. And not only can you justify to others (and yourself!) why you're not drinking, you probably get some positive affirmation for being on "Bob" duty as well. The folks you drive back will probably acknowledge your "sacrifice". 

    But the question is, why is the label "Bob" so important? Why not just call it "designated driver"? The answer is because "Bob" introduces a personality to an otherwise dull term of a designated driver. The designated driver sounds official and solemn, it sounds like it's part of the narrative of death and responsibility. Instead, Bob is a positive label that people can start using without the association to all the previous negative information campaigns.

    This is also an example of how useful labels can be, or as Gen Z might say: when you label something, it becomes a thing. "Laugh out loud" and "LOL" are the same thing, but one resonates much more. Autonomous sensory meridian response is a turn-off, while ASMR is common language among YouTubers. 


The "Bob" campaign is more successful than traditional campaigns, and this should be yet another reminder that our natural inclination to just give information to solve problems tends not to work. Instead, we have to examine other ways to make that message more prominent and acceptable. 

But that drink-driving remains a serious issue also shows how powerful our subconscious tendencies are. Even when our own lives are at stake, we cannot resist immediate temptations. We over-value short-term gain/pain and under-value what happens in the long-term. We also over-value explicit outcomes over the prevention of an uncertain eventuality. Finally, we carry, to different extents, optimism bias - we recognise that some action might be risky, but we think that it would never happen to us.

Driving home after drinking provides immediate convenience. Not diving creates immediate pain - inconvenient and perhaps a higher cost of taking a taxi home. Our optimism bias causes us to believe that while others might get into accidents, we are able to drive home safely even while we are drunk. And we find it difficult to register that over-time, the risk of drink-driving greatly accumulates into a probability of an accident. While we see the inconvenience as a certainty, we think that drink-driving accidents are not.

And this is the same reason why:

- people refuse to observe safe distancing during the coronavirus

- why people struggle to finish a dosage of unpleasant medicine that is life-saving

- why doctors have to introduce incentives to get people to take their medicine on time

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