Why Does Everyone in L.A. Drive Drunk All the Time?
I'm just going to have one more beer and I'll still be good to drive, right?
Jon Haynes Photography
Car culture was the last element I embraced in my new life as an Angeleno. The first few months I lived here, filling my gas tank made me physically ill. The cost! The fossil fuels! The hours spent in traffic! I may have cried about it once or twice, alone in my sad sublet behind one of Silver Lake's six thousand hair salons.
Three years later, I relish surface-street shortcut strategies just as much as I once relished plotting how best to escape my high school's Bronx campus to sneak down to IHOP during assemblies, and I crave Steve Inskeep and Renee Montagne on my morning commute just as much as I once craved a novel or a newspaper.
And yet I still cannot stomach the casual ubiquity of drunk driving in this city. I see it every weekend among friends, acquaintances and strangers. The stammering insistence that you are cogent. The shrug showing you believe there is no alternative. The sloppy slip into the driver's seat.
Over a thousand Angelenos got DUIs the week of July 4th. Seriously, Los Angeles. We need to talk. Why must you weave a dangerous game of Russian roulette along the freeways and boulevards every weekend?
I have a few theories.
1) Unless you are Amanda Bynes, the police are too easy to evade.
Announcing the locations of sobriety checkpoints enables rather than deters drunk driving. Drunk drivers often don't make egregious, attention-seeking mistakes before crashing into a tree or mowing down a herd of bikers; hence the life-saving efficacy of random breathalyzer testing on a Saturday at 1am.
But unless you are an irritatingly over-the-top shitshow comedienne stupid enough to swipe a stopped cop car with your BMW, the police might not notice your intoxication until it's too late. Thanks for making our streets safer, LAPD, by making public exactly which areas drunk drivers should avoid each weekend!
2) Buses and trains take forever to go nowhere.
I'm not convinced that this past summer's announcement that Metro Rail lines will push their last weekend trains from midnight to 2 a.m. will dramatically reduce instances of drunk driving because train routes are still woefully insufficient. In most cases your only option is a sluggish bus ... or three. How often are you traveling directly across a single boulevard in one night, as the buses do? Even if your home and your destination are perfectly aligned on opposite ends of Fairfax or Melrose, a trip that takes thirty minutes by car can take two hours by bus, not including the half hour spent waiting on the street, obsessively refreshing Google Maps in hopes that this time your phone's prediction of when the next bus is coming will be correct.
And what if you want to go to a party in the hills? Should you take two buses and then walk forty-five minutes up a mountain, in the dark, from Laurel Canyon Blvd to your destination? If you live in Pasadena and want to go to a bar in Los Feliz, should you eschew a fifteen-minute drive in favor of an hour and a half-long bus ride or three trains that take you wildly out of your way?
Of course not, you think. I'll just drive.
3) You have no idea what .08 means.
When I lived in Japan, you couldn't drive with any blood alcohol content (BAC) whatsoever. This was great. There was no margin for error, and no one that I knew drove drunk, ever.
Here, you need a BAC of less than .08 to legally drive. But you have no idea how fuzzy your brain needs to be to hit that number, do you? .08 might mean one glass of wine for that willowy chick who only had a salad for dinner, but it could also be four beers for the fratty agency assistant who goes out every night.
Plus, when you are drunk it is almost impossible to assess how drunk you are. Unless we pull a France and require breathalyzers in all cars, this ambiguity will continue to justify intoxicated people getting behind the wheel.
No one ever thinks he will be the one to end up in cuffs... or worse.
4) No one wants to be your designated driver.
And when you do find someone, you turn around at the party and realize he's had three drinks when you weren't watching.
5) You think public transportation is sketchy.
A friend triumphantly texted me in early June to announce she was taking a bus to get downtown. Her next text read: "A woman in front of me was just vomiting into a cup, got off the bus, littered her vomit cup, and went into BK for maybe a bathroom or rest or something." Followed by "I'm totally getting a ride home. ;)"
I used to commute to work via train, and it's honestly not as bad as you think, but outside of rush hour, L.A.'s train lines have yet to hit the point where there are enough normal people to make you feel safe among the crazies, as you do in New York or Washington, DC. A friend of mine once accidentally sat down in fresh graffiti and stood up with blue spray paint all over her outfit. Things can get particularly dicey after 9:30 p.m., especially if you are a non-hideous female traveling alone.
6) Other people act like it ain't no thang, so you do, too.
Bars have parking lots. Everyone who drank wine at dinner hops in her car and speeds off. A work event serves margaritas but makes no mention of an alternate way for freeway commuters to get home. You don't want to linger awkwardly at the party until the alcohol wears off and everyone else is gone. You didn't mean to get drunk that night but you needed liquid confidence to approach the boy you like. Even celebrities who should be able to afford chauffeurs don't use them, and apparently choosing bars in your neighborhood won't solve anything: the Freakonomics blog has noted that drunk walking might be just as dangerous as drunk driving. You can't control where your friends live, you don't want to be the only sober person at the bar and you've never experienced the true consequences of your careless behavior... and neither has anyone else you know.
So until self-driving car technology hits the mainstream, Los Angeles, we're going to need to start talking about how we can fix this. Because it's starting to freak me out.
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