The Social Norms We Must Change to Save Lives

(Photo by William Silver/Shutterstock)

On a January morning several years ago, I walked into a family restaurant in a tiny town in New Mexico. It was just a few days into the New Year. As I talked to the service staff and other patrons, I learned that they were grieving over the loss of two high school students who had died in separate car accidents on New Year’s Eve. You couldn’t even call them traffic accidents because no other cars had been involved. Each young man had been impaired by alcohol when they died on the same stretch of highway, one after another.

No wonder this tiny town with only 300 residents was reeling. Everyone knows everyone in that town. The loss of one young man would be hard—and they lost two on the same night, from the same unnecessary, preventable cause.

Certainly these young men—both underage drinkers—had no idea that drinking on New Year’s Eve would cause them to lose their lives. It’s possible that this practice was already a norm they accepted without question. If you give some thought to the many norms we live with every day, you’ll get an idea of the way they could be contributing to the loss of beloved family members and friends.

What is a NORM?

The website has a good definition of norm: “Informal guideline about what is considered normal social behavior in a particular group or social unit.

There are hundreds of norms shaping the way we think about alcohol use, and even, in some circles and some ways, drug use. For how many people is it a norm to drink on New Year’s Eve? Or at a wedding or Fourth of July barbecue? Or firing up a joint on a Friday night after the work week is over? But are norms dangerous? Useful? Rational? Are some of them leading to a loss of life?

Would it be better if we each inspected the norms we currently take for granted in our own personal or social lives?

The Many Norms that Could be Harming Us

Norms vary, of course, by culture and social group. But here are some common ones that you may have seen without even giving a thought to.

Three men drinking shots of alcohol
(Photo by George Rudy/Shutterstock)

The Power Hour: On their twenty-first birthday, a person is taken to a bar where they are expected to drink 60 shots of beer in one hour, or one each minute. The drinker may be given a bucket into which to vomit. If they are lucky, they will vomit up the alcohol and not even make it anywhere near 60. An alternate game is drinking 21 shots of alcohol with a higher ethanol concentration. This is the game that killed Jason Reinhardt in 2004. After making it to 16 drinks while partying with fraternity brothers on his birthday, he returned to his fraternity house, went to bed and never woke up.

The Drunken Bachelor Party: Ask yourself if it really makes sense for the male members of a wedding party to get blackout drunk right before the wedding. For Marco Muzzo, it was a terrible idea. He returned to Miami after a bachelor party, picked up his car with his blood alcohol concentration still three times the legal limit for driving, then crashed into a minivan. When the dust settled, he had killed three children and their grandfather.

Beer Pong: This is popular game on college campuses and while tailgating. Players on two teams try to land ping pong balls in distant cups of beer. If they succeed, the opposite team must drain the cup. When Salomon Martinez of Bridgeport, Connecticut was accused of cheating during beer pong, a fight broke out. He fell or was pushed out a window and died on the concrete below. Maybe this popular game should not be so popular.

On Marijuana

Regarding marijuana use, those who use marijuana tend to think that far more other people use marijuana than actually do so. According to one study, a college student who thinks marijuana use is the norm among other college students, is three times as likely to use the drug themselves as students who don’t think other students are using it.

Two young men smoking marijuana.
(Photo by guruXOX/Shutterstock)

Among high school seniors, fewer of them think marijuana is more harmful than ever before. In a recent survey, 60% of them felt that marijuana is safe to use. In recent years, this number has kept growing. So for them, marijuana use has become a harmless norm.

Are there any norms related to marijuana use that could be deadly? Yes, the belief that driving after consuming cannabis products is safe and acceptable. However, an analysis of traffic accident insurance claims in Colorado and Washington showed that claims went up 16% in Colorado and 6.2% in Washington after the drug was legalized.

The Durango Herald, a news service in Colorado, also found that fatal crashes involving Colorado drivers who tested positive for marijuana more than doubled between 2013 and 2016.

Driving after using marijuana may be a norm among some groups, but it is one that should really be re-evaluated by each individual.

Is it Safe to Allow Norms to Affect Our Behavior?

Norms among our peers may be affecting our behavior and decisions more than many of us realize. When it comes to drug and alcohol use, those norms could be leading us to dangerous decisions. If you take an objective look at it, there’s greater safety in a calm evaluation of the consequences that are likely to follow an action we are tempted to take. Such as getting blackout drunk at a fraternity or sorority party or twenty-first birthday party, getting heavily intoxicated on marijuana in a roomful of people you don’t know, or deciding to walk home in freezing weather when you’re too drunk to drive.

We can learn from the experiences of people we know or media reports on the tragic results of fateful decisions like these. Norms should never be allowed to influence our decisions when our health, safety and sobriety are at stake.


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.