When you think of a drink-driver you may picture an aggressive boy racer, a middle-aged businessman who's had one too many when entertaining clients, or maybe just a regular guy who let himself be talked into another beer by his mates and ended up getting pulled over and losing his licence.
Chances are, you didn't think of a woman. To a certain extent, that's in line with the facts – men are responsible for the majority of drink-driving convictions. However, the female share has nearly doubled in the past 15 years, from 9% in 1998 to 17% in 2012, according to research by Social Research Associates (SRA).
Is female drink-driving a hidden problem?
The concept of men as always being the guilty party when it comes to drink-driving is reinforced by public information films about the dangers of drink-driving.
In 2014 the Think! road safety campaign released a montage of the films to mark their 50th anniversary. And from the very first, set at an office party in 1964 in which a Harry Enfield style voiceover warns that 'after eight whiskies the risk of an accident can be 25 times as great' , men are invariably shown as the guilty party. Women only feature as victims or reproachful wives.
Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) feels that female drink-driving may be a hidden problem. "The SRA research showed that drink-driving convictions for women are rising, it also showed an increase in the number of women who report that they regularly drink and drive but don't necessarily get caught. "Common belief is that when a man is driving drunk he will often speed or drive erratically and attract the attention of the police. However, this research shows that women reported attempting to drive more cautiously under the influence of alcohol, with the belief that they would be less likely to get stopped by road traffic police."
Katherine believes one of the reasons why the female conviction rate is rising could be because of confusion about alcohol levels. "There is a general lack of awareness of how many units there are in drinks such as wine, which is a drink of choice for many women," says Katherine.
"They may think, 'I'll be fine with just one glass’, under the impression that that's just one unit of alcohol. But one unit is 125mls of wine and in practice that is rarely served – pubs tend to offer 175 or 250ml glasses. When socialising in someone's home the measures offered are even more generous and because it's become fashionable to have oversized wine glasses, even a large measure of wine can appear small. "Another point to remember is that wine has increased in strength over the past 15 years with New World wines often having a higher alcoholic content."
Is more research on female drink-driving needed?
Katherine believes that it would be valuable to do more research on female drink-driving. "Our perception of which women are heavy drinkers are those we can see doing it – essentially, young girls out partying on a Saturday night. But the research shows middle-class, middle-aged women are the ones who are drinking the most. "And whilst many of them may be completely responsible when it comes to booking a taxi after drinking at a party or a wedding, they might not see the more everyday issues – such splitting a bottle of wine at a book group, or having a glass of wine over dinner and then nipping out to pick up a child from drama club, as a problem. "But although the legal limit for driving is 80mg alcohol per 100ml of blood (50mg in Scotland), the risk of an accident increases after drinking any amount of alcohol so it's best to avoid alcohol completely unless you know there's no chance of getting behind the wheel.'
Could more drink-driving adverts aimed at women be the answer?
Maybe one step to lower female-drink driving rates would be to launch more anti drink-driving adverts aimed at women. For example, the short film 'Should have crashed at yours', featuring two women enjoying a wine-fuelled chat in a pub. It then offered two alternative endings – the first in which one of the women drives off and crashes her car, and the other in which her friend insists she stay at her place overnight, and all is well. It's an approach that could help women become more aware that drink-driving and serious accidents aren't something that are necessarily linked to wild nights out or habitual law-breakers.
If drinking and driving go together, then even a relaxed midweek catch-up can end in tragedy.
How to avoid drink-driving
Don't start drinking until you've fulfilled any 'mum's taxi' duties. And if you've had a drink and a family emergency crops up, find any option for dealing with it that doesn't involve driving. Order a taxi, or call in favours from friends or other family members to pick them up. Always have the number of several cab firms in your mobile, so if one is busy, you have other options.
Remember, we drink to loosen up and relax but when we drive we need to be alert and safety conscious. The two things don't go together. If you're going to drive, don't drink at all.