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Success of designated-driver campaigns unclear

Thu May 26, 2005

By Amy Norton

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - There is little evidence that designated-driver campaigns and promotions have helped reduce the number of people who drive drunk, according to a new research review.

The review, of nine studies that evaluated a single media campaign and several promotions at bars and clubs, found that some of these publicity efforts were mildly successful in getting drinkers to choose a designated driver.

However, the study authors report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, "The present evidence is insufficient to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of either type of designated driver promotion program."

The concept of the designated driver arose in the 1980s as a practical way to curb drunk driving. The idea is to elect a single person who will remain sober and drive his friends home from a night out.

In practice, though, many designated drivers do not completely abstain from drinking, according to some U.S. surveys. And in some cases, a designated driver may not in fact be "designated," but instead be chosen at the end of night because he or she is the least intoxicated person around.

Mass media campaigns and promotions at bars and clubs -- which, for example, offer designated drivers free non-alcoholic drinks or food -- have tried to encourage people to use the designated driver idea as it was intended. But whether such efforts make much difference in drunk driving rates has been unclear.

The promotion of designated driving as a concept has been "enormously successful," as the idea is now solidly part of the popular culture, said Dr. Randy W. Elder of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, one of the authors of the new study.

It's difficult, he told Reuters Health, to determine whether "any one piece of the overall effort" -- such as public service announcements and bar giveaways -- has had a meaningful impact.

One of the studies Elder and his colleagues reviewed found that a three-month media campaign in one Australian city led to a 13-percentage point increase in the number of people who, in telephone surveys, said they always chose a designated driver. On the other hand, the study found no change in the number of people who said they drove after drinking or got in the car with someone who was drunk.

Studies looking at the effects of promotions at bars and clubs found varying results, according to the review. Another Australian study found that a promotion at three clubs led to a small decline in the number of patrons who said they drove when they thought they were impaired or rode with someone who seemed drunk.

Several U.S. studies, but not all, have found that bar promotions seem to lead to small increases in the number of people who call themselves designated drivers -- and, one study found, they seem to work better when bar staff "enthusiastically" promote the idea.

But whether this translates into less drunk driving and fewer accidents is unknown, according to Elder and his colleagues.

One concern with designated-driver programs has been that they may imply that getting drunk is fine, as long as someone else drives. But most promotions, Elder said, specifically state the importance of everyone drinking "responsibly."

Another important point, according to Elder, is that designated drivers should abstain from drinking, and not just stop before they think they are drunk. "That's why people need to decide who will be the designated driver before the drinking starts," he noted.

SOURCE: American Journal of Preventive Medicine, June 2005.

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