The recent revelation that while the overall figure for drink-driving casualties and accidents has been steadily falling since 1979 the number of female convictions has not decreased in line with the male rate, came as no great surprise to me. The Police Federation maintains that the drink-driving message is not getting through to women, a statement borne out by a Social Research Associates study published last year which highlighted a 9% increase in drink-driving convictions involving women (up from 1998 when the figure stood at just 8%).
In both my role as editor of Soberistas.com, an online forum aimed at women with concerns about their alcohol consumption, and as a result of my personal experiences as a busy working mum of two, I have witnessed countless examples of women who are drinking excessively.
So why are women drinking so much? I was a heavy and frequent binge drinker for twenty years before I quit four years ago following a particularly excessive boozy session. I know why I used to drink too much, and I suspect it’s the same for the majority of women out there who are hitting the wine a little too hard in the evenings.
Firstly, I fell hook, line and sinker for the dominant cultural message in our society that suggests wine is nothing more than a treat, an indulgence that’s rightfully ours after a hard day spent looking after the kids, working, cooking and cleaning. What could be better than a sophisticated bottle of red that has the power to eliminate stress and seamlessly demarcate the humdrum domestic daytime hours from fun and sexy evenings?
Secondly, I remained firmly in denial that my one-bottle-a-night wine habit was indicative of an alcohol dependency and constituted a level of consumption that was frighteningly damaging to both my physical and mental health. I repeatedly told myself that everyone drank as I did, and therefore I need not worry.
Thirdly, I came of age in the era of the ‘ladette culture’ of the 1990s, a social phenomenon that ensured women everywhere were provided with carte blanche to drink in the same quantities as men with none of the stigma of days gone by. When I got married a few years later and had my first child, I merely swapped the pints of beer for bottles of wine and merrily got on with the business of heavy drinking – a misguided notion of feminism resulting in a dogged refusal to accept the undeniable truth, that women cannot drink in the same measures as men without causing themselves more physical harm.
A person drinking a 14% bottle of wine or three 250ml glasses (a large pub measure) of wine and finishing drinking at 11pm would need to wait until 10.30am the following day before he or she was safe to drive. This poses an issue for anyone who is drinking on a nightly basis and then doing the school run, driving to work or dropping the kids off at a weekend sports club the next day. When we have responsibilities that we don’t want to shirk, we can easily reassure ourselves that actually, we are fine to drive; that the last glass we drank at midnight will long since have left our bodies because we’ve downed a strong cup of coffee and had a nibble on some toast; that a £10 bottle of Chablis doesn’t really count as evidence of a drink problem because it was imbibed in the privacy of the home and no outward damage occurred as a result. That kind of drinking is fine, we tell ourselves, because it’s not representative of how ‘alcoholics’ drink – and they are the ones with the real drink problem.
Public health campaigns warning against driving when over the legal limit have traditionally featured groups of men sinking a few pints in the pub. We have yet to see a campaign that targets women, and specifically the type of woman who is consuming wine on an almost daily basis, at hazardous amounts, and who is then driving the following morning.
The female body does not process alcohol as efficiently as its male counterpart. In addition, I know of many women (myself included) who have routinely skipped meals in order to accommodate the extra calories they are taking in via wine. Drinking on an empty stomach means alcohol travels straight to the bloodstream and quickly reaches the brain, resulting in a heightened loss of control.
A hectic schedule that invariably involves frequent use of the car, a physical form less able to cope with excessive alcohol consumption, a common denial of an alcohol dependency existing at all, and a desire to be perceived as a perfectly functioning modern woman, can (and often does) easily amount to jumping behind the wheel of a car with fingers crossed and a too-high blood-alcohol level.
The only surprise to me with regards to this story is that anyone is surprised at all.