#1162: “Is there room for compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving?”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I use she/her pronouns.

I have been in a relationship with my boyfriend for almost four years. We live in different but nearby cities, and I don’t own a car (though I can get access to one with advance notice), so he often drives to mine. In our region, there is a lower Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) limit where you don’t get criminal charges, but do get your license suspended and pay a fine. I used to assume that my boyfriend could self-assess his level of inebriation, but after a roadside encounter with the police where I’m not sure whether he’d have blown over the lower limit if they’d asked, I’ve been more frequently using a BAC calculator to find out what time he would be expected to be below the limit, and asking him to wait until that time to leave. It’s imperfect, but it’s what I have available.

He feels that his self-assessment is more likely to be accurate than an online calculator (and I’m not sure that he’s wrong), and that I am being controlling by constantly pulling up the calculator when we’re out. I feel like I’ve enabled this by allowing him to drive me, and I’m being a bit hypocritical because I often drive while tired. I drink only occasionally, so I find it hard to assess what’s normal for the average person. It also feels difficult to ask people I know about this without inadvertently maligning him, because people may (very understandably!) have strong opinions about combining alcohol and driving.

I’m considering just offering to split costs on a taxi when he comes to visit, and/or arranging more dates where I drive to his city. However, that only covers the time we spend together, and it makes me nervous to think about him driving after drinking in any situation. Is this just a fundamental incompatibility? Is there a way to approach this that doesn’t feel controlling and self-righteous? Even now, I feel like I may just be asking for validation of my opinions instead of actual advice, but I really don’t know what to do.

Not BACchanalian

Dear Not BACchanalian,

Your question is incredibly timely given the holiday season and incredibly important given the high stakes. Thank you for giving me a chance to tackle it. 

Let’s review your current situation:

  • Your boyfriend opts to drink every time or nearly every time you go out together (or at least enough that “constantly” is word we’re throwing around).
  • Your boyfriend is the sole or primary driver. (Why not you, even driving his car, if you’re not drinking?) 
  • You’ve observed that he’s sometimes dangerously close to the legal limit and chooses to drive anyway.
  • There’s been at least one police encounter where he barely scraped by.
  • You have a lot of fear for your safety and his.
  • You used to trust his self-assessment, but you’ve observed recent patterns and behaviors that call for alternate assessment tools.
  • Boyfriend is drinking enough on these nights out that his sobriety IS in question. (I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that if he were a “glass of wine or two with dinner” guy, you wouldn’t know what a BAC calculator even is.)
  • He thinks that his self-assessment about whether he’s safe to drive carries more weight than any or all of the following: your observations of changes in behavior, your concerns about safety, a near-miss with police, and math.
  • He’s dismissed your concerns and called them controlling.
Image: The “This is fine” dog, drinking coffee, in hell. Irony!

Rather than a sign that you are being controlling, I think your experiment with the BAC calculator (and your quest for compromise) indicate to me how hard you are working to be fair to your boyfriend. If his self-monitoring and your worry are both subjective, why not at least collect some data? Unfortunately, the data can’t make him listen to you, and second, we’re still left with these questions:

  • How do these conflicts generally get decided? If the BAC math isn’t in your boyfriend’s favor for where you live, does he agree to wait longer and sober up, or ask you to drive home instead? What happens if he squeaks by on the math but you still observe impaired functioning and/or feel uncomfortable getting in the car? 
  • More specifically, how often does your boyfriend insist on drinking and driving anyway, and you end up acquiescing because you’re tired of fighting/worried about being controlling? 

You mentioned in your letter that you’re not sure how to determine what’s “normal for the average person.” That’s an amazing question, an incredibly clarifying question! Does “normal” exist, who decides what it is, how do they decide, and is it the boss of you?

(I actually felt myself enter Full 13th Doctor Interrobang Mode for a second, that’s how great your question is). 

Image: Jodie Whittaker as Doctor Who #13, enthusiastically saying “Brilliant!”

One problem with depending on “normal” or “average” to make decisions about how much drinking and driving might be okay:  It really depends on where you live. There are countries where it’s illegal to have any alcohol in your blood when you are driving. Others use what we know about how alcohol affects human functioning at different concentrations to set legal limits (the acceptable limit of blood alcohol content before a person is charged with a crime). Some countries have no legal limits. I went down quite a research rabbit-hole this weekend and I made you this chart: Drunk Driving Chart Final (PDF). Screenshot below: 

Screen Shot 2018-12-30 at 4.40.47 PM.png

Your boyfriend’s self-assessment of his condition and abilities might be more accurate than an online calculator, but if the sweet spot he’s searching for is between “So drunk my probably controlling girlfriend is afraid to ride with me” but “Not so drunk I get automatically charged with a crime or lose my license,” the whole conversation is already FUCKED. 

What if we stopped caring what “normal” and “average” are and focused on what’s right? We know that the safest, best option when it comes to mixing booze and driving is: Don’t!

Don’t drink if you’re planning to drive, don’t drive if you’re planning to drink.

Once you set that as your baseline (vs. trying to calculate & rules-lawyer your way back from certain arrest), there are a ton of things people who want to drink can do to make sure they’re being responsible about it. All the tips from those after-school specials and assemblies about designated drivers and talking to your friends and family to let them know you’d be there for each other haven’t changed! They’re just curated into amazingly comprehensive lists on defense attorney websites (srsly, that site’s archive is gigantic!) and checklists galore, courtesy of insurance companies. The information’s still the same.

And the conversations/scripts are still the same:

  • “Boyfriend, I don’t want to fight about this anymore, but it turns out, I am not comfortable getting in a car with you if you’ve had any drinks.”
  • ” I think you underestimate how much it affects you, and how much you want to argue with me about it is one of the reasons I think that. We need to make another plan.
  • “Hey, boyfriend, let’s make a plan for how we’re going to get home later so we can both relax and have fun and not fight about this anymore.” 
  • “If you want to drink tonight, that’s cool! I’ll be the designated driver and get us home safe.”
  • “If we’re going to be drinking, let’s leave the car at home and take a taxi instead.”
  • I don’t want to monitor your drinking or count drinks or every calculate your likely BAC levels ever again! That’s why I want us to make definite alternate transportation plans and follow through with them if we’re going to be drinking.” 

I would suggest having these conversations well before you’re out drinking or heading that way, How your boyfriend reacts to these conversations, how well he works with you on finding safe, reasonable solutions, will tell you what you need to know about compatibility and whether you can trust him in the end.

And, let’s say you are totally off-base about your boyfriend and his alcohol tolerance and decision-making.  If you are over-hyping all of this, then LW, fuck it, I guess you’re controlling and incompatible! Risk having him think that about you if the alternative is dying in a fiery crash b/c you didn’t want to deal with an argument and he didn’t want to be inconvenienced. Some night it might realistically come down to you saying ““I don’t think you should drive, and I won’t get in a car with you while you’re like this,” and I need you to be okay with holding that line if you think you need to. 

Sometimes compromise isn’t possible. And a “compromise” where he says “I said I’m cool to drive, babe, buckle up quit trying to be the boss of me” and you overriding your instincts and getting in the car because you’re afraid of arguing too much or having your concerns dismissed is too compromised.

Alcohol affects people differently, so, are there some people who can reasonably and safely have a couple of drinks over the course of a few hours and then drive themselves home? Sure! ( So everyone can hold their anecdotes about times they made it home “just fine”). Do you know who I trust the least to actually be one of those people? Someone who gets offended when someone they care about wants to double-check on that, especially someone who’s about to be a passenger in their car. You may in fact be okay to drive and know you are okay to drive, but if you’ve been drinking, the answer to someone double-checking before they get in a car with you is still some version of :

  1. Stopping and actually thinking about it before you answer.
  2. Followed by “I’m confident I’m good, but I really appreciate you asking!
  3. Erring on the side of caution, always. 

Preventing drunk driving isn’t just about laws and punishments, it all only works if everyone feels safe to ask the question, feels safe to answer honestly, and feels safe to postpone or turn down a ride. There’s no prize for powering through in borderline situations [unless your favorite prizes are enormous legal problems, injury, & death]

Always remember: Your boyfriend has choices about how he treats you, choices that speak to his compatibility with you around this, and dismissing your concerns or setting you up as the bad guy are not great ones.

.I want to address another point you made: 

“I feel like…I’m being a bit hypocritical because I often drive while tired.”

There are lots of things that can affect driving: fatigue, texting and driving, certain medical conditions and prescription medications, other substances, etc.  So, I want you to work on not driving when you know you’re overtired, but I also want you to not fall for whataboutism around this. In a world full of risky behaviors, anti-drunk driving laws and social campaigns were created to target a recreational, optional behavior that we know interferes with safe driving. Laws against texting & driving are working on the same thing. Tired people or people who glossed over that “don’t operate heavy machinery” warning on their meds or Tumblr checkers (how I wish that was a joke) don’t give people who like drinking a free pass!

No comments today, for a couple of reasons, most important being: My person tolerance for hairsplitting around something where there are life & death consequences and abundant reasonable, safe, ethical pathways open for doing the right thing is absolutely nil.  

We have a great community, I’m excited to get back to talking with y’all on a regular basis in 2019,and I trust 99% of us.

But when I was answering today’s letter I realized that if I were to see one single”#notalldrunkdrivers anecdote, a solitary “Here’s my jaunty LifeHack for sobering up fast!” tip, if a lone amateur Freakonomist were to swim through the filters to explain that “The real problem isn’t drunk driving, it’s regional dependence on car-centered transportation,*” I would lose my entire shit.

Maybe it’s just ’cause I could field a credible zombie baseball team just from people I’ve buried because somebody combined booze and driving and magical thinking? Fully half the players would come just from the street I lived on as a kid, which is only about a mile long. 

Maybe it’s because regional transportation systems that favor dependence on cars vs. public transit are something we should rethink literally everything about, but also, if you live in an area like that, don’t drink and drive? It’s not complicated. If you’re invested in making that complicated, I question your motives.  

Mr. Awkward is a confident, experienced, chill driver. I am not – got my license late, have probably driven fewer than 5,000 miles in my life, it makes me incredibly anxious, so I don’t do it. In an emergency, I’d trust a slightly tipsy him behind the wheel over a totally sober me. If such an emergency happened, and we survived, the story we would tell in the aftermath would not be “what a totally cool decision with no gray areas!” It would be “Holy shit, we almost died, let’s never do that again.” Could we argue that he’s a better driver drunk than I am sober? Yeah! Let’s fucking not, though! 

Maybe you (general, nonspecific, plural, global you, not the Letter Writer) have been faced with a series of unsafe and unfair choices and risking a DUI was the least bad one of those. I don’t want to come to your house and arrest you, I’m not here to beat you up for the time you took your chances with Unsteady Freddy because it was better than being at the mercy of Handsy Andy, or the time you misjudged things and cut it too close, or the things that happened when you were an addict before you got help, or the time the bartender really should have taken your keys but she didn’t.

I’m glad you made it home safe!

But I also don’t need to run the simulations with you in real time. It’s okay to leave “please don’t drink and drive” out there as an ethical standard. It’s okay if the exceptions can just stay exceptions, and the times people successfully threaded the needle can just be lucky, not a reason to move the needle. BIG MOOD FOR 2019:  It’s okay to NOT do the thing that geeks do where as soon as someone says an ethical rule, we brainstorm all the ways it might not really apply to us and seek reassurance for the times we had super good reasons to break it.

Letter Writer, thanks for your timely-to-the-season question, I hope you find a safe, happy outcome and a great 2019.


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