- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 8, 2003

On any given Thursday night in Houston, people get a jump-start on the weekend in the bars and restaurants in the city’s center. It’s the busiest night of the week for Alex Kasem, the owner of Bayou City Valet Services, which serves 10 area establishments. His employees will park three times as many cars on a Thursday than they will on a weekend night.But while drivers in this car-loving city line Mr. Kasem’s pockets, they can also threaten his livelihood after they’ve had a few drinks.Preliminary figures in a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study show alcohol-related driving fatalities have increased for the third year in a row. And in 2001, Texas had more deaths caused by drunk driving than any other state.Valet parkers can be the last line of defense between drunks and the road, and often have to make judgment calls about a customer’s ability to drive.”The first thing that tells you they’re wasted is that they can’t find their valet ticket,” Mr. Kasem says. “The next is that they don’t know what car they were driving, they just want you to bring it to them.”When his employees refuse, they usually do so over the alcohol-fueled protests of the car’s owner.”It’s the biggest problem we face,” says Mr. Kasem. “In 15 years of business, I’ve hardly ever seen anyone willingly leave their keys. You have to beg them.”An ocean away, in London, Robert Williamson’s customers have had just as much to drink — sometimes more. But they gladly hand over their keys at the end of the evening. In fact, on any given Saturday night, half of them have called ahead and made reservations to do so.Mr. Williamson is a co-owner of scooterMan, a London-based company that dispatches chauffeurs to drinking customers on motorized scooters that can fold up into the trunk of a car.The scooterMan is insured to drive a customer’s car to the destination of his choice. Once there, he hands the keys back to the customer, pulls the scooter out of the trunk, unfolds it, and speeds away to his next job. The whole thing costs less than taking a taxi both ways.”Most conscientious people realize that driving drunk is a fundamentally selfish activity,” Mr. Williamson says. “There are a lot of consequences just for the sake of a few glasses of wine and merriment.”Indeed there are the same types of consequences as there are in the United States: the possibility of accidents, arrest and loss of one’s driver’s license. But for many Britons, there’s an extra risk that most Americans wouldn’t think of: It’s considered very bad manners to drive drunk.”In my generation, it’s worse than a criminal act; it’s an antisocial act,” says Oliver Forder, a 27-year-old advertising executive. “You’d really kind of think ‘What an irresponsible idiot.’ ”“Clearly antisocial behavior,” says Gary Smith, 44, an engineer in Croydon, which is about 15 miles outside of London. Mr. Smith and his American wife, Renee, always decide who is going to drink and who is going to drive at the beginning of the evening. If both want to drink, they take the train.”It was one of the first things I noticed when I moved here: People will always have water if they’re driving,” says Mrs. Smith, 31, a New Hampshire native who came to London five years ago. “It’s just not cool. People actually get [upset] if people drive drunk, which is just a foreign concept for Americans, isn’t it?”While much of this attitude comes from increasingly punitive legislation for drunk driving in Great Britain, Roger Vincent of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says that attaching social stigma to drunk driving has been helped by 25 years of ad campaigns.”It’s part of the social consciousness that it’s a wrong thing to do,” Mr. Vincent says. “It can affect people’s social lives.”The Department of Transportation in Great Britain has made a commitment to reducing road deaths by 40 percent over the next 10 years, and part of that commitment involves increasing the number of ads against drunk driving on television.Clare Hutchison, a board account director for Abbot Mead Vickers in London, worked on one such ad campaign before the millennium. She explained that socially stigmatizing drunk driving was as much a part of advertising strategy as pointing out its dangers.”We wanted to create a cloud of mass indignation against drunk driving, which puts pressure on the individual,” Ms. Hutchison says. “The most powerful way to create moral indignation is to focus on innocent victims who are victims of selfish people.”Ads from the campaign included testimonials from victims’ families and imprisoned drunk drivers. In fact, they’re not dissimilar to ads aired in the United States over the years, so it’s difficult to say why such images haven’t affected Americans in the same way as Britons.”It could be that we are a small country. Whether it’s easier to influence something in a small country, I don’t know,” says Mr. Vincent of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. “The American attitude is very much that driving is a right. We say, ‘You should feel privileged to drive.’ “The sheer number of Americans on the road vastly outnumbers that in Britain, so for a bit of perspective on how these attitudes translate into actual road safety, here’s a look at percentages. The most recent figures from the Department of Transportation in Britain show that 480 persons died in drunk-driving accidents, making up 16 percent of total road deaths.Last year, according to preliminary reports from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17,970 persons in the United States were killed in crashes involving alcohol, representing 42 percent of all highway fatalities.”It is one of the most committed crimes in America,” says Louie Del Rio of the Consumer Information Division of the agency. “Most people know you shouldn’t do it, but still, at the end of the night, it happens.”Mr. Del Rio says each country’s specific infrastructure, laws and resources make comparison difficult, but says that in the United States, “There’s a lot more we have to do from a social perspective. There’s a whole cycle of influence that occurs, and arrest is at the end of that cycle. We’re trying to get people to plan ahead.”In practice, this is a message many Americans aren’t getting, says Wendy Hamilton, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.”My hunch is that people think it’s dangerous, but we don’t think it’s socially unacceptable,” she says.”If we did, there wouldn’t be over a million drunk-driving arrests and over a billion drunk-driving trips and over 18,000 drunk-driving fatalities every year.”Alex Kasem says his employees know to keep keys out of the hands of anyone who is out of control, even if that means offering to call and pay for a taxi, or calling the police. Still, the lengths people go to get their cars show they are more preoccupied about convenience than consequences.”People are sneaky,” he says. “They’ll go back inside the bar, then come out and ask a different valet for their car. They’ll say, ‘Just give me the keys, I just need my purse.’ But if you fall for that, they’ll just drive away.”

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