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CommunityMindfulnessDrinking and driving: Where culture outweighs consequence

My friend remembers the first time he drank and drove. It was actually the first time he had alcohol, let alone drove under the influence. The year was 2013 and he was 18 years old, speeding in the fast lane and overtaking cars from the hard shoulder while blasting the aggressive hit song of the time, I Don’t Like, by rapper Chief Keef. Needless to say, he quickly learned that alcohol, hyped music and a...
Issa SalemSeptember 5, 202117 min
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My friend remembers the first time he drank and drove. It was actually the first time he had alcohol, let alone drove under the influence. The year was 2013 and he was 18 years old, speeding in the fast lane and overtaking cars from the hard shoulder while blasting the aggressive hit song of the time, I Don’t Like, by rapper Chief Keef. Needless to say, he quickly learned that alcohol, hyped music and a V8  engine was a reckless — and highly unsafe — combination. 

When he confessed to a sibling, she stated the obvious about drinking and driving — “You need to really separate these two activities — and it has stayed with him, all these years later. He never drank alcohol and drove again. 

Not everyone is getting the message, however. In just Dubai during that same year, drinking and driving deaths were up by 175 percent, with 324 alcohol-related traffic accidents between January and November. In 2020, this number reached 670. And this is despite strict measures in the UAE, including imprisonment, a fine upwards of Dh25,000 and a suspended license anywhere from three months to two years. 

Then there is the zero-tolerance policy on driving while intoxicated. Blood alcohol concentration must be 0.00 — anything else is an infraction. 

It’s not like alternatives are sparse. Cabs are lined up outside bars; Careem can be summoned instantly with a tap on your phone screen. There are even multiple designated driver apps that will send someone to drive you home in your own car.

So why do so many of us drink and drive — and do so repeatedly, even as we well know how high the stakes are, and how dangerous it is for ourselves and others?

The reasons, as UAE residents explain, are many. 

AA, a 28-year-old Dubai resident from India, a marketing executive who prefers to remain anonymous, believes one is convenience.

“A close friend of mine drove under the influence when he was just 18 years-old and completely totaled his car,” AA explains. “And regardless of risking his life, he still continues to do it because he finds taxis too expensive and it’s also tedious to go back the next day to pick-up the car.”

But there is another, cultural factor at work: the fear of being instantly judged and penalized by his parents, a major concern for youths when drinking is forbidden in a conservative household.

“Regardless of what he would say,” referring to his friend, “if he doesn’t have his car, it’s just a dead giveaway that he was drinking.”

This doesn’t concern everyone, however. In his home, drinking is forbidden due to religious or cultural reasons, says AD, a 28-year-old long-time Dubai resident and entrepreneur of Iranian origin.

“My parents never ask about where my car is or suspect me of drinking,” AD says. “I remember once I was driving after having a pint of beer. I felt a bit tipsy by the time I reached my friend’s majlis, so I left the car there and took an Uber. When my parents asked me why I didn’t have my car and I told them I was too tired to drive, they believed me and that’s because my father once fell asleep at the wheel. We take the dangers of drowsy driving more seriously.”

Culture and upbringing also play a role. MA, a 25-year-old Iraqi living in Dubai, believes that drinking and driving is less prevalent among Westerners. 

“I had a night out with five colleagues from my old job; all were Western expats above the age of 40,” MA explains. “Three left their cars behind and had assigned a designated driver from the group to drive them home and the other two came without their cars. But I know several Arab friends that regularly drink and drive.”

MA believes the difference stems from higher levels of normalization and communication on alcohol in Western cultures, and a lack of this in conservative Arab families.

“I went to international schools where I’ve seen Westerners growing up and seeing their parents drink. They even drink with them once they are of age,” he said. “This often comes with healthy communication and boundary setting, namely on the dangers of drinking and driving. But for Arabs here, alcohol is far more stigmatized and not discussed openly with parents, so many of us develop unhealthy drinking habits.”

Canadian sober coach and yoga teacher, Alex McRobert, whose parents were very strict with her about drinking and driving, also believes that communication and where you’re raised are factors.

“I grew up in downtown Toronto where buses, taxis, and subways were always readily available,” she says. “My parents were also very strict with me as a teenager and young adult about never drinking and driving — so it wasn’t something I ever considered. In contrast, when I was out of the city and around teenagers that grew up in the countryside, drinking and driving was just the norm for them — since their houses were 30 to 45 minutes away from each other and they couldn’t afford taxis,” she adds.

But in a society like the UAE, it appears that what you do represents not only yourself but also your family, friends and background. So, drinking and driving is influenced by self-image and reputation for people like MS, a 23-year-old Emirati government employee.

“Speaking as an Emirati who drinks, there are two choices: sit in the lobby and wait for the alcohol’s effect to pass, or drive. The latter is often preferred because many of us don’t want to be seen sitting in the lobby around where drinks are served. The others will look at us and say, ‘This guy’s too drunk to drive.’”

Another culprit? The toxic masculinity of our machismo culture, says MS. “On top of all that, they’ll add, ‘He’s a sissy too afraid to drive’ or ‘He’s a lightweight.’”

It’s remarkable that people take the risk, considering the possible penalties. 

“I know a guy who was a lieutenant in the army, and he lost his job after being caught drinking and driving. He also had to pay up to Dh30,000,” says MS. “Won’t that be enough to make someone reconsider?”

It isn’t enough for many. But near-fatal accidents often are, and were, for RS, the uncle of a 27-year-old Emirati hospitality employee. “I almost lost my nephew to this. He broke up with his girlfriend the night before. Hadn’t slept for over 24 hours, went to a party, drank a huge amount — more than he ever had — and jumped his car off a bridge after passing out. He was rushed to the hospital and thankfully wasn’t hurt. He’s never done it again since.”

AP, a 26-year-old Iranian digital media executive who now lives in Ontario, Canada, also stopped drinking and driving since moving.

“I moved out of Dubai where drinking and driving was more common and normalized,” he says. “It’s a lot more frowned upon here in Canada and feels as stigmatized as doing hard drugs. Public transport here is also a lot more accessible.”

AP also believes that raising awareness through visual campaigns — like the highly visible Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaigns in North America — would help a lot. It’s something the UAE has never had, along with police-operated “ride programs” that randomly stop drivers on weekend nights and around holidays, to check if they’ve been drinking. 

“Out here in Canada, every few ads on TV or the Internet is a moving story on the effects of driving while intoxicated, and they are very effective in appealing to viewers’ emotions,” says AP. “These types of ads may make people reconsider drinking and driving.”

McRobert, who has now been sober for over two years, also advocates awareness, especially among youth; something that’s influenced her mindfulness, community, coaching and yoga brand, the Mindful Life Practice.

“We need awareness about what alcohol does to us physically and mentally, and why it is unsafe to drink and drive. This education should start very young. For example, I do virtual talks at high schools all around the world about substance abuse, the negative consequences of my drinking problems, why I chose sobriety, and how I help others quit,” she says.

McRobert mentions consequences, a common bedfellow of drinking and driving. Yet not everyone agrees — demonstrating the depth of the work to be done. 

AD’s response to a question about the consequences of drinking and driving? “What consequences?” That close friend of AAs? He continues to drink and drive to save on cab fares, despite his accident.

Here in the UAE, drinking just a few glasses can cause major problems. What if you are rear-ended by another motorist and face a routine breathalyzer test? A BAC just over 0.00 will cost dearly in money, time and convenience — all those things people think they are saving on when they drink and drive. 

It’s always easier to recover from a cab fare.

• Are you sober curious? Keep an eye out for Livehealthy’s upcoming series on this issue, which covers all the people who are taking a second look at their relationship with alcohol.

Issa Salem

Issa handles multimedia at livehealthy.ae and got involved in fitness and healthy living after graduating high school. The sedentary lifestyle and junk food diet of his teen years had taken a toll on his wellbeing. Now, he makes sure to put his health first. Issa earned his bachelor’s in marketing and has since found his passion in media and arts.

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