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Why is no one talking about drink-driving any more? Former F1 champion Nico Rosberg speaks out

Nico Rosberg - British Grand Prix 2019
Rosberg fulfilling his safety ambassador role during the recent British Grand Prix at Silverstone

The last fatal crash in Formula One was five years ago, Jules Bianchi succumbing to injuries months after colliding with a recovery vehicle in heavy rain during the Japanese Grand Prix in October 2014. Since then halo devices, tested with F1 tyres fired at 200mph at the cockpit protectors with an air cannon, have helped make F1 cars safer than ever.    

Partially as a result of motorsport research and development, road car safety engineering is also improving. There have been no recorded UK deaths in the Volvo XC90, for instance.

At a time when F1 is championing more aggressive racing and overtaking, former world champion and road-safety campaigner Nico Rosberg does not think improved safety protection makes drivers on the track – and their fans driving on the road – more likely to take risks.

“That is just a great benefit which people are thankful for,” says Rosberg, who started from pole position and finished second in Japan on the weekend of Bianchi’s crash.  

Rosberg secured the 2016 F1 world title with the help of a psychologist when the mind games with team-mate Lewis Hamilton became intense Credit: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Rosberg is the face of Heineken’s When You Drive Never Drink campaign. Despite an increase in drink-drive deaths from 170 to 250 between 2015 and 2017 (according to the Department for Transport) and about one in 20 casualties involving a driver over the blood-alcohol limit, generally the UK has one of the lowest incidences of drink-driving in the world. 

In fact, topics such as plastic in our oceans and sexual equality seem to get more media attention in Britain.  

Rather than relying on technology and safety systems in modern cars to help save their occupants from inebriated drivers, the campaign is focussing on peer pressure to have one designated driver pledge to keeping off the booze and be rewarded with free snacks and soft drinks and offering zero alcohol beers and spirits. 

Behavioural scientists have even been working out ways to use messaging in bars and pubs to ‘nudge’ potential drink-drivers towards choosing alcohol-free drinks. The campaign has been successfully trialled in places as diverse as the UK, Brazil, Russia and New Zealand. It is planned now to take it worldwide.

Rosberg's Heineken-backed initiative encourages designated drivers to stay away from alcohol by offering free snacks and soft drinks

“In Brazil, in 20 bars, we saw 25% less (sic) designated drivers [break the pledge] and take an alcoholic drink. The plan is to now roll it out globally,” says Rosberg, who famously used a psychologist in his F1 title battle with Lewis Hamilton and who has teamed up with one to get into the heads of potential drink-drivers.

Rosberg seems to relish the new role. It is hard to know what to do when you have retired as the reigning F1 world champion. Ferrari’s 1979 champion Jody Scheckter set up a firearms simulator company, then switched to running Laverstoke Park organic farm in Hampshire. 

Scheckter was unusual. As the most recently retired champion Rosberg, like former title-winners Damon Hill or Jacques Villeneuve, does some punditry. More contemporarily (he is only 34) he is a budding YouTuber (with half a million subscribers) and environmental entrepreneur, investing in the all-electric Formula E racing series and green start-ups.  

Sir Jackie Stewart was the last F1 champion to become an advocate of road safety Credit: Paul Grover

But being a road safety protagonist sits well with him. Sir Jackie Stewart was the last former champion to turn his post-racing focus so aggressively to safety.

“Listening to a former F1 champion tell them they are idiots for drinking and driving is part of it,” Rosberg tells me at Silverstone during the recent British Grand Prix. “I hope I can be a very credible role model because especially us Formula One drivers don’t compromise at all when it comes to our driving performance on track.”

Maybe the ultimate illustration of the effects of drink driving would be to put Rosberg’s YouTube presenting and his road safety campaigning careers together – in an F1 simulator to see how even one of the most accomplished drivers on the planet is affected after one, two or even more alcoholic drinks?    

Car crash television for sure.  But it would get the message across.

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