You’re young, you’re fabulous, you’re rich beyond most people’s wildest dreams. You like to party – your job demands it – but it doesn’t matter, because at the end of a boozy evening brushing sun-kissed shoulders with your fellow A-listers, you can afford a taxi. Heck, you can afford a chauffeur-driven limo to whisk you back home. Not for you the miserable drunken queue for the night bus.
So what on earth would make you reach for the keys to your shiny white Range Rover and hit the Los Angeles highway in a state of advanced inebriation?
This is what Mischa Barton, the 21-year-old star of The OC, the television series, and the new St Trinian’s film, appears to have done at about 3am on December 27, when she was spotted weaving erratically by police. She was then locked up for several hours before being released on bail.
Barton’s arrest follows a string of high-profile drink-driving misdemeanours all going to prove that even Hollywood poster girls have trouble bending the strong arm of the LAPD.
In June, Paris Hilton, granddaughter of the famous hotelier, started a 45-day prison sentence for driving while banned, following her original ban for alcohol-related reckless driving.
Lindsay Lohan, the 21-year-old star of Mean Girls, was sentenced to four days in jail in August for drink-driving and possessing cocaine, although in the event she served just 84 minutes. Nicole Richie, 26, the adopted daughter of Lionel Richie and Hilton’s co-star on The Simple Life TV show, served just 82 minutes of a four-day sentence for driving while on drugs, having been caught travelling in the wrong direction on a dual carriageway.
And don’t even mention Britney Spears, who shortly before losing custody of her children amid allegations of alcohol and drug abuse, was charged with a hit-and-run incident, not involving drink, in which a parked car was damaged.
There was a time when celebrity driving offences were the preserve of overpaid footballers in overtuned sports cars, but now young female starlets have become the bad girls of the road. And the phenomenon is not confined to Hollywood airheads. Barton and pals reflect a more general change in female behaviour behind the wheel. There is growing concern in Britain about women who are increasingly choosing to mix driving and alcohol.
The number of women found guilty of drink or drug-driving in England and Wales rose by 60% from 6,794 in 1995 to 10,849 in 2005, the most recent statistics available. Women now represent 12% of convictions, compared with just 7% in 1995. (The number of male offenders actually dropped 3% between 2004 and 2005.) Over the same period the proportion of female to male licence holders rose by just two points from about 15.8m in 1995, or 44% of all drivers, to just under 19m (46%) at the end of 2005.
The rise in drink-driving convictions comes as more young women are ignoring recommended drinking limits, with an estimated 23% of women aged 16-24 now consuming more than 21 units a week – the recommended number for women is 14. And it’s not just teens and twentysomethings. A study published last year in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that 14% of women questioned (from a sample of more than 11,000 British men and women) were still regular binge drinkers in their forties.
“Men still make up the vast majority of drink-drive offenders,” says Sheila Rainger, acting director of the RAC Foundation. “But we are seeing a worrying rise in the number of women who are driving while over the limit. This is one side effect of increased equality we really don’t want to see. As well as competing in the workplace, women are also gaining on men in terms of aggressive driving and speeding as well as driving under the influence of drink.
“And the example set by Hollywood actresses does contribute – these are role models for young women.”
Police in Scotland last week revealed that more than 100 women had been charged with drink-driving during the first three weeks of the annual festive crackdown. About 650 men were also charged, but women, while still less likely to drink and drive, made up a larger proportion of offenders than in previous years. Kenny MacAskill, justice secretary in the Scottish parliament, said the figures reflected wider concerns about alcohol misuse, which appeared to be “tightening its grip on both young people and women, many of whom seem to believe that heavy drinking and driving can go together”.
Steve Green, head of roads policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said the trend reflected more fundamental social changes. “The predominant issue is still young men but we need to keep our eyes on young women because if this rise does continue – and it seems to be the consequence of women drinking much more than they used to – we need to look at education and enforcement and how to target them.” The RAC is already calling on the government to launch an anti-drink-driving campaign aimed specifically at women, and there are growing demands for a reduction in the drink-drive limit.
The current UK alcohol limit for driving is 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood – the equivalent of about four units, or two pints of regular-strength lager, for a man of average height and build. For women that’s three units, or less than two small glasses of wine. The government is considering reducing the limit to 50mg, to bring the UK in line with most other European countries, which could result in just one or two units putting a driver over the limit.
Motoring groups claim many women are not even aware of the current limit or how this equates to units of alcohol. A recent survey of 4,000 motorists of both sexes found that more than 80% were unclear about the current limit, even though it has been in place since 1967.
“Women often have no idea about how many units they can drink,” says Kay Octigan, who runs a drink-driving awareness course for offenders for Devon county council. “A lot of people still equate one unit with one glass and, as a lot of women drink wine, that can mean a huge miscalculation. Wine can have an alcohol content of 14% these days, and one large glass of wine can hold as much as 250ml. That means that one glass could easily push you over the limit.
“To be honest, people can be affected very differently, depending on their body chemistry, how much they’ve eaten, a whole host of things, so the only sensible advice is simply not to mix drinking and driving at all.”
Devon’s course was launched as part of a pilot scheme in 1992 and similar courses are now offered throughout the UK. Drink-drive offenders who take part can receive a 25% cut in the length of their ban. Driving under the influence of alcohol carries an automatic one-year ban, which can be extended for more serious offences, and can even include a jail term.
But even in California, where the likelihood of being caught seems high – certainly if you’re a celebrity driver – and the punishments are often severe, this does not seem to stop offenders. Dr Lisa Dorn, a psychologist and director of the Driving Research Group at Cranfield University, Bedfordshire, believes this trend reflects wider changes in female behaviour. “One of our recent studies showed that women were becoming more aggressive behind the wheel,” Dorn says. “Women seem to be taking on the mantle of typical male behaviour in many areas of life, which is a very worrying trend.
“There may also be emotional factors involved and a general misperception of risk, particularly among young people.
“As for the sort of young Hollywood stars who are hogging the headlines, this may have something to do, in part, with society just being more shocked by women behaving badly. But it may also be a reaction to a life lived from within a goldfish bowl and messy emotional lives, which can fuel risk-taking behaviour.”
Parallel to the rise in female drink-drivers has been a 30% increase in the number of people aged 17-19 – of both sexes – convicted of drink-driving in the 10 years from 1995 to 2005.
Safety campaigners have raised concerns that drink-driving no longer carries the social stigma it did back in the 1980s following several highly effective anti-drink-driving campaigns. One solution could be to price young drivers off the road during the hours when they are most likely to be under the influence. Norwich Union noticed that young drivers were far more likely to be involved in accidents between 11pm and 6am – so it introduced pay-as-you-go insurance with fees per mile that are much higher between these hours. The result was that the number of claims made by drivers aged between 18 and 23 fell by more than 30% last year.
That still doesn’t address the problem that the very celebrities who are role models for young women find a spell in jail can be an instant career booster. Paris Hilton emerged from chokey looking demure and clutching spiritually inclined tomes on self-improvement. Rather more sobering for the heiress was the shock news that her grandfather is planning to leave 97% of his £1.2 billion fortune to charity, reportedly as a result of his granddaughter’s recent antics. Don’t worry, Paris, there’s always the night bus.
The UK legal drink-drive limit is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres (ml) of blood, or 35 micrograms per 100ml in terms of alcohol in the breath
Driving while under the influence of drink or drugs carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000 and a minimum 12-month ban
The penalty for refusing to take a breath test or provide a blood or urine sample for analysis is the same
A drink-driving conviction will remain on your driving licence for 11 years
Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink or drugs carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison, a minimum two-year driving ban and a requirement to pass an extended driving test before you are legally allowed to drive again