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Would YOU call the cops?

By: staff

Date: Monday, 25. February 2008

The picturesque village of Gairloch on the north west coast of Scotland looks like a set from the quirkily brilliant 1983 movie, "Local Hero." For tourists who want a taste of real unspoiled Scotland it's an ideal destination. In the summer of 2002 it was a tragic destination for a Yorkshire family taking a summer afternoon stroll through the village on the last day of their highland holiday.

A local man, 29-year-old Justin Elder, lost control of his speeding car and ploughed into the family, killing Shirley Braithwaite, 51, her 22-year-old daughter Natalie and her 19-year-old son Matthew. Shirley's husband Kenneth survived because he was walking a short distance behind the others.

Justin Elder was drunk - very drunk. At his trial, the court was told that Elder, upset with the recent loss of his job and a breakup with his girlfriend, had consumed seven pints of lager and two vodkas in a lunchtime drinking session at a nearby bar. They were also told that the barman took his keys from him and drove him home.

However, Elder returned to the bar, had another lager, and then again attempted to drive home. Finally, he returned to the bar with a friend who took the car and then changed seats with Elder.

In June of 2003, Elder admitted to culpable homicide at a High Court in Edinburgh and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

What could have changed

Elder's story is not all that unusual. All around the world there are stories of drivers who insist on driving drunk and of those who might have stopped them but didn't, or couldn't. What the Gairloch story tells us is that it isn't easy to do.

Reading the account of the tragedy, the first, and obvious question that comes to mind is what happened to the 'friend' who assisted Elder. Was the friend convicted as an accomplice or even charged. There's no mention of this in media accounts.

A just as obvious next question is, could the police have played a role in preventing Elder from driving? Did anyone call them? That question was likely foremost in the minds of the British public in the aftermath of the trial, and a subsequent article in The Telegraph examined the problem of preventing unfit drivers getting behind the wheel in some detail.

In the article, Dr. Raj Persaud makes some very telling points. "One problem with dissuading potentially dangerous drivers to desist is that they are usually in denial about the problem - the very difficulty that reduces their ability to drive safely also diminishes their capacity to judge their own driving competence."

"This is a particular issue with drunk drivers," adds Dr. Persaud. Asking someone 'Don't you think you've had too much to drink?' is absolutely bound to fail because it requires of the driver the very judgment he is too incapacitated to make."

It's difficult to persuade drunk drivers not to get behind the wheel for a number of reasons. Drivers with years of experience, and possibly many successful experiences of driving home drunk, tend to have very inflated ideas about their abilities. As well, psychological research shows that they tend to minimize to themselves their chances of crashing or getting caught, says Dr. Persaud.

Some anti-drinking and driving public service messages may be misleading as well. One, frequently shown in North America, represents the effects of drinks as viewing a driving scene through a wine glass. After several drinks, and several glasses placed in front of the camera, the scene looks fuzzy. Drivers seeing this might conceivably conclude that lack of this kind of distortion means that the alcohol is not affecting them as it would others.

Self-deception is an over-riding trait of repeating drunk drivers.

Perhaps the most powerful element in drunk driving is underrating the social consequence of doing the right thing. Traffic sociologist J. Peter Rothe cites the example of the teenager who's been drinking at a party. "He should call home and have his parents pick him up rather than drive. He's even signed a contract with his parents that if he does make such a call they will pick him up, no questions asked. But the reality," says Rothe, is that teens know there will be consequences despite the contract." (in Rethinking Young Drivers, 1987)

"Despite parental assurance, most parents who answered student calls did engage in judgment or discipline. And students were worried about what parents would think if they knew there was drinking at parties. "To call parents for rides was considered by most to be unthinkable." (See Balancing risks: John F. Kennedy Jr's chain of risk decisions).

Rothe, whose qualitative research studies involved thousands of hours interviewing parents, teenagers, truck drivers and older drivers, cast a new light on driver behavior. He found many instances in which individuals took the socially easy way out rather than follow the law. Soccer moms faced with the dilemma of leaving kids behind because there aren't enough seatbelts will save grief and awkwardness by piling them in. Truck drivers drive far more hours than they should because not doing so will put them in the bad books of dispatchers and may deprive them of work.

In one case, a truck driver drove all night through mountainous terrain without headlights rather than fall behind schedule. The moonlight was good enough, he rationalized.

Good tactics

In the case of drunk drivers, says Dr. Persaud, subtle tactics can pay off. "It's vital to be calm and make light of the issue initially, but also to remain firm," he writes. You can refuse to ride with an incapacitated driver, and this works better with friends, spouses or loved ones. More importantly, he points out that "consenting to a ride with an incapacitated driver despite arguing previously about his capacity to drive is usually seen by the driver as covert acceptance of his actual ability to function."

Saying that you've seen police in the area, pointing out the consequences, enlisting the persuasive help of others (especially sober others) all play helpful roles.

Perhaps the most important strategy though, is to provide an acceptable alternative for the driver who is drunk and needs to get home. And remember, they may also need to get their car home as well to avoid some possibly major inconveniences later. Perhaps that would have been the key in the case of Justin Elder.

Last resort - the cops!

For the vast majority of us this is, indeed, the last resort, and the consequences, for everyone involved, are not to be underrated. As in the case of the partying teens cited by Rothe, even a social contract, spoken or unspoken, by police and others involved to minimize consequences may not be honored. If it's a friend or a family member it may be hard to forgive.

"If all else fails, ask the incapacitated person if he could live with himself if he killed a child, or maimed someone for life. Sadly, such tragedies happen all the time," writes Dr Persaud. But there are many instances of drinking and driving and not many are caught by the law. Crashes, and more importantly, fatalities, are not the norm either. That's a powerful incentive for optimistically befuddled drunk drivers to feel they can get away with it.

In the end, developing a culture of responsibility may be the answer. That would be a world in which the entire array of actions, from designated drivers to cajoling, peer pressures and confiscating keys and are brought into play.

But maybe that last option, calling the cops, needs to be elevated to more acceptable status.

Read also: Reporting unfit drivers

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All Comments (8)

Showing 1 - 8 comments


I fully agree that culture responsibility is the answer to this problem.


just dont b an alcoholic man.


i think that Justin ought to be locked up for life! i knew matthew and his family and am sad at this loss.


Stuart, that is the name of the man who gave Justin his keys to his car, he is Justins best friend and no charges were laid on him whatsoever, police questioned him and that was all.
i grew up in Gairloch and it completely shook the village when this tradgedy occured


I have driven drunk. I have never gotten into an accident. I have been lucky. I chose not to drink at all anymore because I would drive drunk. I would call the police.


SO they try to loose our voice.
Who?? The bartender..The uuuser..Don,t drive drunk.. simple enough you would think.. Hah.
Hard to stop a drunk from driving..I,ve tried.. TRIED I said .They did get pulled over they were drunk.
But mor e importantly use this forum to question the legal and illegal substances available in the world today.Pepsi pushes being awake .budweiser pushes ...what?And so on....HIGH TIMES.Why is it there again...?Iforgot.Propaganda begins with alcohol it has its uses buyt not as an enhancer ,,but as an cleanser.


I've seen the ad with the wine glasses and i think its true. suppsoe you have your 5 or 6 drinks and things don't look fuzzy? Hey, that means you're OK right?

Around here lots of people drive to the bar because its the only wayu to get there.. ask them if they are Ok and naturally they say yes.

Jonathan F,

Great article. This recently happened to some friends. They tried to get another friend to not drive home after drinking, and he got all angry at them and called them names. Even though nothing happened when he finally did drive home, he is still angry at them and the friendships were tarnished. Just because of his pigheadedness. Maybe he is not worth being friends with after all, but the emotional stress of trying to take away keys is hard. Bringing the cops in might be an answer in a lot of cases.

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