Formula One Champ Nico Rosberg Talks Beer, Behaviour and Boffins In a Bid to Stop Us Drink Driving

By Rob Clymo on at

Everybody has the odd dumb idea from time to time, so piloting a drone in a no-fly zone at the Montreal Grand Prix with a helicopter hovering overhead seems like a particularly daft notion.

Which is why 2016 Formula One World Champion Nico Rosberg is midway through a sentence when the conversation tails off. “You’ll have to excuse me as I think my friend might be going to jail,” he says as two agitated Canadian police officers loom up behind him.

Said videographer friend has been flying a drone above us mid-interview and they’re not impressed. Rosberg is here as an ambassador for part of Heineken’s When You Drive, Never Drink campaign, which is aimed at reducing drink driving globally. Luckily for the hapless drone pilot he gets let off when the two officers realise who’s being filmed.

Of course, drink driving is also a very stupid idea, but the thought of a global beer producer like Heineken telling people not to sink lots of its alcoholic products seems a little bit at odds with being in the brewing game. There’s a certain kind of logic to the masterplan though and Heineken still wants you to enjoy its liquid gold. But there’s a time and a place right?

Hence the new initiative, which includes the Dutch beer producer partnering with leading behavioural change experts to redesign the bar environment. One of the main aims is to reduce peer pressure to pick up a pint, bottle or whatever your favourite tipple might be. And to do that Heineken needed some heavyweight academics to pitch in and figure out why people do what they do.

So can science really put an end to people getting behind the wheel after boozing? A pilot study has already been conducted in both Manchester and Reading and the outcome of that delivered upbeat signals that drink driving can be reduced – by up to 50% in the findings to date.

Selected bars and pubs were equipped with a collection of 20 nudges, reminders and prompts, all designed to put people off the thought of drinking and driving. Customers were observed over a period of two weeks across a collection of 10 booze outlets in the two cities.

Rosberg sounds particularly excited about the outcome thus far… “Heineken is one of the coolest brands out there, and big in our sport as well, so I’m very proud to have partnered up with them especially because the purpose of the campaign is so cool. I think F1 is a great platform for the message we’re sending out because we’re really role models in what we’re trying to portray and what we’re trying to tell the people out there with the ‘No Compromise’ commercial.”

The former World Champion is the central figure in that slick new No Compromise advertisement and it’s a slogan close to his heart. “It’s how I won the world championship,” he says, “by not compromising in my life and putting everything towards success. That’s what we’re trying to get across to people who are sitting at the bar and having pressure to have that first drink. We want to encourage no compromise and absolute abstinence from drinking if you’re going to be driving a car.”

One subject that comes up during our conversation is how much automotive technology might help combat drink driving in the future. After all, autonomous cars might end up doing everything for you, regardless of whether you’ve had a drink or not. Rosberg himself has already been bitten by the autonomous bug, having recently driven the Tesla Model X for his Youtube channel.

“That’s really been my first experience of self-driving cars going from A to B on the motorway,” Nico enthuses. “It was phenomenal, I really loved it. Yes, there are times when I want to drive. But, there are also times where I just don’t want to drive and would prefer to relax. I’m really looking forward to all that stuff. I’m really into the tech scene… impact technologies mainly. I’m an investor in and promoter of Formula E, SpaceX, Lyft… so I’m really in that space as an investor right now. It’s a fascinating time.”

“There’s a sustainability revolution going on and I consider this road safety message a key part of that sustainability,” he adds. “Everybody is just becoming more aware of the need to change things. I’m also fascinated by how much impact the field of mobility can have in this. With e-mobility and then autonomous cars things are going to be incredible. It’s going to change the world.”

While Heineken has the celebrities on board (Rosberg, Sir Jackie Stewart and David Coulthard), there are also the aforementioned scientists, including Dr Helena Rubinstein, who worked long and hard collating the campaign facts and figures at her base in Cambridge. She’s just one part of Innovia Technology, an innovation consultancy that’s been in existence for around 20 years now.

“We basically invent things for large companies,” she says. “We’re comprised of a bunch of scientists from a variety of fields… everything from biologists through to behavioural scientists, which is the team that I head up. The behavioural science team tend to get involved whenever there are humans on the end of a new invention and, as they’re usually involved, we’re involved along the way too.”

How does the process work? “Usually clients come to us because they want to invent something, whatever it might be,” adds Helena. “So, let’s say they’re interested in autonomous vehicles. They might have a really interesting technology, but they don’t know how people are going to respond to it. Or they might not know if they have to do something more to the technology to make it more acceptable to the people that might be using it.”

“In that sort of situation we might have some of the engineers, the behavioural scientists and industrial designers working together to figure out that problem in a holistic way. I think that’s the key really, because working in a holistic way allows you to solve problems more quickly because it lets you look at multiple issues all at the same time. Often, we’ll have someone on the team who’s a strategist and can crunch the numbers too.”

“I think this is going to sound rather strange,” she adds, “but we actually spend more time understanding the problem than we do solving it. Once you’ve understood the issue then it can be really quick and easy to solve.”

So, a prime example of this process in motion is the recent research for Heineken and their When You Drive, Never Drink campaign. “Heineken spends a proportion of their money each year trying to help people to think about responsible driving,” Helena explains. “But you can tell people until you’re blue in the face ‘don’t drink and drive’ and they don’t always listen to you. So is it possible to actually tackle the factors that influence that behaviour? Of course, we said ‘oh, it’s complicated’, which it is because behaviour itself is complicated and there are lots of factors involved at any given time.”

“Peer pressure is one of the biggest things. So the first thing is to change beliefs, which is a much longer-term thing. The second thing is to make it easy for people when they are in that environment, and then you have a plan in place for if they do fall off the wagon and drink. Finally, there’s the part where you change the habit and get people used to working in this way. In the end we actually got about 150 people to sign the pledge over the period we were doing the research.”

Crucial to the process was getting the bars and their staff on board. “I thought it would be very hard getting them to sign up and we had some criteria for bars that we wanted to use,” furthers the scientist. “Some were gastro places, others were good old boozers, and surprisingly we didn’t get what we thought would happen with them saying that they didn’t want to be involved because they made their money from alcohol.”

“In fact,” she adds, “four out of the ten bars said they were going to carry on doing it even after the study had ended. We were completely astounded by that. But, even so, this is really like the first step in a very long journey to change behaviour. Of course, the other issues are the fact that legal limits vary from country to country as does social behaviour, so to roll it out worldwide is a complex issue.”

A complex issue for sure: but one that deserves your attention. After all the number crunching the Designated Drivers Pledge is now set to roll-out globally, with drivers around the world being able to pledge their commitment to staying sober – take a look for yourself at how it worked during the pilot project.