How Sweden Figured Out Drunk Driving

sweden-drunk-driving-measuresOne thing Americans don’t like to do is learn from other countries. We have our own way of doing things, and it’s gotten us pretty far. But other countries are a lot further along when it comes to drunk driving, and it pays to look over their shoulder. Take Sweden.

Sweden has the lowest rate of alcohol abuse and drunk driving in Europe, but it was not always so.  Alcohol abuse was common in the 19th Century, and by tradition drinking in Scandinavian countries meant drinking to intoxication.

  • High taxation of alcohol. Every liter of vodka is taxed to the tune of about $25.
  • Strict regulation. Alcohol, apart from light beer, is sold at state-licensed stores only. The stores are not open at night.
  • Cultural attitudes. In many countries it’s common to have a drink any evening after work. In Sweden, drinking during the week is generally looked upon more or less how drinking during the day would be seen in the US. The weekends are for drinking – and it must be noted that getting drunk is not frowned upon then.

Drinking and Driving: A Different Culture

What stands in stark contrast with America’s attitude toward drinking and driving is that in Sweden, it is not done. There is no, “I just had one beer” or “I can handle it.” If you have had alcohol, you don’t drive. The legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit in Sweden is .02, as opposed to the US and UK’s .08. It’s well known that drivers with a BAC of .05 are impaired, and that fact is not disputed in Sweden, as it is here.

Drinking and Driving: Different Laws

Drunk Driving laws in Sweden reflect the country’s serious attitude toward the crime. The fine you pay is not set by statute, so a star athlete won’t have a $200 hand-slap. Fines are based upon how much money you have in the bank. That can really hurt, and that makes everyone think twice about getting behind the wheel after drinking.

Repeat offenders have their vehicle impounded and scrapped. In general, drunk driving is seen as a detestable crime, and people don’t do it.  One could say that the government defeated the drinking culture and replaced it with a culture of sober driving.

Drinking and Driving: Different Precautions

One interesting measure Sweden takes is encouraging the use of ignition interlocks in professional transport of all types. Government vehicles generally have the devices, which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking. While they are mostly used voluntarily by fleet companies, they are also employed in some trains, ferries, and light rail lines.

Proof: Drunk Driving Laws Work

If one has any doubts that laws can directly affect road safety, consider this: about 3 percent of Sweden’s road fatalities involved alcohol. In the US, it’s ten times that: about a third.

Where to Go From Here?

It would be difficult to make Swedish-style changes in the US for a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with the fact that each state has its own laws and customs. But it would make sense to work on the states that have the most permissive drinking cultures – notably Wisconsin, which is notorious not just for drinking but for lax drunk driving laws. And the use if ignition interlocks in official vehicles would not just keep more people safe but would demonstrate to everyone the state’s commitment to sober driving.

Americans have taught the world a lot of things. But we shouldn’t shy from learning from other countries that have taken different roads. And it looks as if Sweden’s road has been the safer one.