Social bond theory and drunk driving in a sample of college students.
Article Type:
College students (Behavior)
College students (Alcohol use)
College students (Social aspects)
Drunk driving (Evaluation)
Drunk driving (Social aspects)
Social learning (Analysis)
Durkin, Keith F.
Wolfe, Scott E.
May, Ross W.
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2007 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: Sept, 2007 Source Volume: 41 Source Issue: 3
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
Full Text:
This paper reports the finding from a study that examined the relationship between social bond variables and drunk driving in a sample of university students. A questionnaire containing indicators representing social bond variables, as well as a measure of drunk driving was administered to a sample of 1459 college students. The results of this study provide mixed support for social bond theory. On the one hand, commitment to conventional activities and acceptance of conventional beliefs were negatively related to drunk driving. On the other hand, neither the involvement component nor the attachment component were related to drinking and driving in the manner predicted by social bond theory.


The consumption of alcohol by college students has received a tremendous amount of scrutiny in recent years. Binge drinking, or heavy episodic drinking, is a prevalent behavior that has been linked to a variety of problematic consequences for student drinkers. These include hangovers, blackouts, missing class, doing something they regret later, getting involved in physical fights and other arguments, and having trouble with the police (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, Moeykens, & Castillo, 1995; Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, & H. Lee, 2000). Binge drinking is also associated with risky sexual behaviors, thus putting students at risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV (Meilman, 1993; Smith & Brown, 1998). Recent research has also revealed that students who drink frequently have higher odds of becoming the victim of assault (Mustaine & Tewskbury, 2000). The tragic alcohol-related deaths of students at several schools illustrate the potentially fatal consequences of this activity. However, the negative consequences of this behavior are not limited to drinkers. Intoxicated students also have an adverse impact on the campus and surrounding community. Examples of these so-called "secondary binge effects" include being verbally insulted or abused, being physically assaulted, having one's property damaged, experiencing unwelcome sexual advances, and having sleep or studying disturbed because of intoxicated students (Wechsler, Davenport, Dowdall, et al. 1994). Community residents who live near college campuses often report a lower quality of life resulting from the behavior of student drinkers (e.g., noise disturbances, disorderly conduct, litter, vandalism) (Wechsler, Lee, Kuo, et al., 2002).

Drunk driving is a type of alcohol-related behavior that endangers drinkers as well as other members of the campus and general community. University students appear to be particularly susceptible to driving while intoxicated (Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & H. Lee, 2003). In a recent study, Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Kopstein, and Wechsler (2002) estimated that at least two million students drove while intoxicated during the previous year. The fatal consequences of this behavior are well documented. The leading cause of death for young people is automobile accidents, many of which are alcohol-related (McCormick & Ureda, 1995). In fact, the most common cause of death in young adults (aged 17-24) is alcohol-related accidents (Ham & Hope, 2003). According to one estimate, about 1100 college students died in alcohol-related crashes in 1998 (Wechsler et al., 2003)

Although recent studies (e.g., Billingham, Wilson, & Gross, 1999; Grenier, 1993; Harford, Wechsler, & Muthen, 2002; McCormick & Ureda, 1995) have sought to identify demographic factors associated with drinking and driving by college students, only a few studies have examined other factors associated with this behavior. For example, Clapp, Shillington, Lange, and Voas (2003) investigated the relationship between substance use patterns (e.g., binge drinking, marijuana use) and drunk driving by university students. Also, Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Winter, and Wechsler (2003) examined the relationship between age at first intoxication and students driving while intoxicated. However, there have been relatively few attempts to apply the various sociological perspectives, particularly theories of deviant behavior, to this phenomenon. This is a serious oversight since sociological theories of deviance typically have strong explanatory value (Durkin, Wolfe, & Clark, 1999). Understanding the factors that cause the alcohol-related problems of college students can inform intervention and prevention efforts (Ham & Hope, 2003). A greater understanding of drunk driving is also of significant importance to the nation's public health agenda (O'Malley & Johnston, 1999). The purpose of this paper is to apply one of the most popular sociological explanations of deviance, social bond theory, to drinking and driving by university students.

According to Travis Hirschi (1969, p.82), the sociologist who formally introduced social bond theory, "we are moral beings to the extent we are social beings." Social bond theory assumes that the motivation for deviant behavior is present in everyone, and concerns itself with the factors that keep an individual from engaging in deviance. The social bond essentially "refers to the connection between the individual and society" (Shoemaker, 2005, p.176). When these bonds are weak or lacking, the individual has less at stake and is at higher risk for committing deviant acts (Faupel, Horowitz, & Weaver, 2004). Social bond theory was originally presented as an explanation of juvenile delinquency and is one of the leading social psychological perspectives on deviant behavior (Massey & Krohn, 1986), and is arguably the most frequently tested theory of deviance (Akers, 2000). This theory has received modest empirical support, and its explanatory value is typically described as good or moderate (Gardner & Shoemaker, 1989). It has been applied to a wide variety of deviant behaviors including academic cheating by university students, alcohol use, juvenile delinquency, and marijuana use (Durkin, S. Wolfe, & Lewis, 2006)

There are four elements of the social bond. The first is attachment. This refers to the ties that an individual has to significant others such as family members; particularly parents (Leonard & Decker, 1994). For college students, the relationship with one's parents would be an example of attachment. The second component of the social bond, commitment, refers to the aggregate investment of time, energy, and resources in conventional activities such as getting an education or a holding a job. These investments represent stakes in conformity (Akers, 2000). Indicators of commitment for university students include religiosity, church attendance, commitment to higher education, and grade point average. The third element of the social bond is involvement. This consists of the amount of time a person spends engaging in conventional activities such as doing schoolwork, participating in extracurricular activities such as clubs or athletics, and working at a parttime job. The final component of the social bond is belief. This is the acceptance of a conventional value system. The belief component includes a general acceptance of the rules of society as being morally valid and binding, as well as respect for authority and the legal system.

While we are not aware of any studies that have specifically applied social bond theory to drinking and driving among college students, a review of the relevant literature seems to suggest that it may be useful in explaining this behavior. First, two previous studies (Durkin et al., 1999; 2006) have explored the relationship between binge drinking and the social bond in university students. These results suggest that both the commitment and belief components of social bond theory are negatively related to binge drinking. Binge drinking is a risky type of alcohol-related behavior that may be somewhat analogous to drunk driving. Therefore, there may be a similar relationship between the social bond and drunk driving. Second, Billingham et al. (1999) found higher rates of drinking and driving among students from divorced families. Social bond theory would posit that these students would have a lower-level of attachment to parents due to divorce. Finally, using data collected from high school seniors O'Malley and Johnston (1999) found a negative relationship between both religious commitment and grade point average (two indicators of the commitment component of the social bond) and drunk driving. Therefore, the same relationship might be expected for university students.

Several hypotheses were derived from social bond theory about the nature of drunk driving among college students. First, there should be an inverse relationship between attachment and drunk driving. Second, the likelihood of drinking and driving will increase as a student's commitments decrease. Third, involvement in conventional activities will decrease the likelihood of drunk driving. Finally, there will be a negative relationship between acceptance of conventional beliefs and drunk driving.



The sample was comprised of 1459 undergraduate students enrolled at four institutions of higher education. Two of these schools were in the Midwest, one in the Mid-Atlantic region and one in the South. The majority of participants (55.7%) were women. The mean age of these students was 19.9 years. In terms of race, 82.9% were White, 10.6% were African-American, and the remaining 6.5% of students were from other racial groups. About half (50.7%) of the students reported that they resided on campus, while 18.6% resided in off-campus student housing, and the remaining 30.7% of the sample rived with family members. Eleven percent of these students reported that they were members of either a fraternity or a sorority.


The instrument included a variety of indicators consistent with the various components of social bond theory. Several of the items were adopted from previous studies (Durkin et al., 1999; Leonard & Decker, 1994). There were two measures of the attachment component of the social bond. First, there was a six-item parental attachment scale ([alpha] = .83) consisting of items such as, "I have a lot of respect for my parents" and "My parents and I can talk about future plans." Second, students were asked whether or not they lived with both parents. There were three measures of the commitment component of bond theory. First, there was a four-item religious commitment scale ([alpha] = .94) made up of items such as "Regular church attendance is important to me" and "Prayer is an important part of my daily life." Second, there was a three-item commitment to higher education scale ([alpha] = .77), which included items such as "I try hard in school" and "Regular class attendance is important to me." Lastly, respondents were asked to indicate their grade point average. Three items that tapped the commitment component of the social bond were included on the questionnaire. Respondents were asked to indicate how many hours a week they spend working, studying, and participating in extracurricular activities respectively. There were two measures of the belief component of social bond theory. First, there was a four-item acceptance of conventional beliefs scale ([alpha] = .58), including items like "To get ahead you have to do some things which aren't right" and "It is okay to break the rules if you can get away with it." Second, a two-item respect for authority scale ([alpha] = .80) involved asking respondents about their respect for the local police and campus police. The dependent variable was measured by asking students to indicate whether or not they had drove a vehicle after having too much to drink in the past 12 months.


The College Student Lifestyle Inventory (CSLI) was administered to the sample of undergraduate students from courses in the social and behavioral sciences. In an attempt to improve the generalizability of these data and findings, the majority of the classes that were surveyed were ones that can be taken by all students to fulfill a general elective requirement. Therefore, students in those classes should be somewhat representative of the student body. Before the survey was administered, students were given verbal instructions regarding the purpose of this study, as well as the voluntary nature of their participation. They were also assured that all of their responses were anonymous. A cover letter that was attached to each of the questionnaires repeated this information. After they had finished the questionnaire, these students placed them in a sealed box that was located on a desk in the front of the classroom.


Overall, 25.8% reported driving after having too much to drink. The breakdown of drinking and driving by subgroup based on social bond variables is shown in Table 1. One of the relationships based on the attachment component was statistically significant. Those students living with family members were more likely than other students to report driving after having too much to drink (30.6% vs. 23.7%).

All three of the variables based on the commitment component were significantly related to drunk driving. First, students with a GPA of 2.0 or lower are more likely to drive after drinking than are other students. Second, there is a negative relationship between drunk driving and religious commitment. Less than 20% of students with a high level of religious commitment reported engaging in this behavior, compared to more than 30% of the other students. Third, students with a high degree of commitment to higher education are less likely than other respondents to report operating a vehicle after having too much to drink (22.5% vs. 34.6%).

Each of the three measures of involvement was related to drunk driving. First, the hours a student spends studying is negatively related to drinking and driving. For instance, students who spend five hours or less studying were nearly three times more likely than students studying 16 hours or more to report driving after having too much to drink. Second, the hours spent working at a job was positively related to drunk driving. The highest level of this behavior (37.3%) was reported by those students who work 16 or more hours a week. Finally, the relationship between participation in extracurricular activities and drunk driving was somewhat more complicated. Students with a modest (110 hours a week) level of participation reported a significantly lower level of driving after drinking than either students who did not participate in any extracurricular activities, or students with a very high degree (11 hours or more) of participation.

Both of the variables which reflected the belief component of social bond theory were significantly related to drunk driving. First, respect for authority was inversely related to drinking and driving. Students with a higher level of respect for authority were less likely than their peers to drive drunk (21.9% vs. 32.3%). Second, acceptance of conventional beliefs was negatively associated with driving after having too much to drink. Students with the lowest levels of acceptance of conventional beliefs were over two times more likely to engage in this behavior than students with a high level of conventional beliefs.


The results of this study strongly support two of the four hypotheses derived from social bond theory. As predicted, there was a negative relationship between commitment to conventional activities and drunk driving. First, students with higher GPAs were less likely than other students to report drinking and driving. This should not be surprising since O'Malley and Johnston (1999) reported a similar finding from their research on drunk driving by high school students. Moreover, Durkin et al. (1999) found that GPA was negatively related to binge drinking in a study of college students. Second, students with a high level of religious commitment reported lower level of drinking and driving. This is consistent with a previous study of this behavior in high school students (O'Malley & Johnston, 1999), as well as research on binge drinking by university students (Durkin et al., 1999, 2006; Wechsler et al., 1995). Finally, students with a high level of commitment to higher education reported significantly lower levels of drinking and driving.

As hypothesized, there was a negative relationship between the belief component of the social bond and drinking and driving. Students who scored low on the acceptance of conventional beliefs scale were more than two times more likely to report driving after drinking than other students were. This is consistent with the findings of previous studies on binge drinking and the social bond in college students (Durkin et al. 1999, 2006). Additionally, students with a high level of respect for authority were less prone to drive drunk than students with a low level of respect for authority. This same measure of the belief component of the social bond has been found to have a negative relationship to binge drinking in previous research (Durkin et al., 1999).

It was predicted that involvement in conventional activities would decrease the likelihood of drinking and driving. This particular hypothesis received mixed support. Clearly there was a negative relationship between the hours a student spends studying and drunk driving. Students who reported studying 5 hours a week or less were almost 3 times more likely to report engaging in this behavior than students who reported studying 16 hours a week or more. Wechsler et al. (1995) reported a similar tendency for binge drinking among college students. Contrary to the hypothesis, students who spend a considerable amount of time working for pay each week (16 hours or more) were more likely to drinking and drive than other students. It is possible that these students may drink with their co-workers and then drive to their dorm or residence. The relationship between participation in extracurricular activities and drunk driving was complex. Students with a moderate level of involvement (1-10 hours a week) were the lowest group in terms of the rate of drinking and driving. The fact that students with no participation in these activities had a higher rate is supportive of social bond theory. However, the fact that students with the highest level of participation in extracurricular activities (11 hours a week or more) have higher rates of drinking and driving contradicts the hypothesis. Two of the most time consuming extracurricular activities (athletics and Greek organizations) have been linked to binge drinking and alcohol-related problems in a number of previous studies (Ham & Hope, 2003). This could be a possible explanation for the disparate findings in the current study.

There was no significant relationship between attachment to parents and drunk driving. During college, students often move away from their family of origin (Vik, Cellucci, & Ivers, 2003) and generally experience an increasing independence from their parents (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism). Therefore, it is not particularly surprising that attachment to parents is not a significant predictor of this type of deviance among college students. However, among those students who lived with their parents were actually more likely than other students to report driving after drinking. This finding is entirely contradictory to social bond theory. However, in a study designed to assess the impact of current residence on binge drinking and related problems, Hardford, Wechsler, and Muthen (2002) found that although students living with their parents were less likely to report negative consequences from binge drinking, they were actually more likely to report drinking and driving. There are two possible explanations for this. First, students who live with parents may be subject to strict parental monitoring and controls (e.g., curfew). Thus, they may drive after drinking to ensure they are home when expected. Second, these students probably commute to campus and rely on a personal vehicle for transportation. Since drinking activities are frequently centered on campus or adjacent areas, they would be more prone to drunk driving than residential students.

Despite the possible contributions of the current study, it is important to recognized several limitations of this research. First, the data for this project were gathered from students enrolled at four universities using a non-random convenience sample. Therefore, it is not possible to assess the generalizability of these findings. However, the purpose of this study was to test an explanation of drinking and driving, not to make generalizations about socio-demographic variables in the national population of college students. Second, the study relied on self-reports. These are often criticized for being susceptible to misrepresentations. Yet self-reports have been demonstrated to be reliable and valid measures of substance abuse (Akers, Kroh, Lanza-Kaduce, & Radosevich, 1979; Wechsler et al., 1994). Lastly, this research used a cross-sectional design which is unable to address maturational issues and social processes that transpire over time (Bennett, Miller, & Woodall, 1998; Weingardt, Baer, Kivalhan, Roberts, Miller, & Marlatt, 1998).

Before ending this discussion, it is important to consider how these results can be applied to efforts to deal with the problems of drinking and driving among college students. Social bond theory typically advocates the development of common sense policies to keep students committed to conventional lines of action and involved in conventional activities (Durkin et al., 1999). The key to education and prevention programs based on this theory is to control alcohol-related problems, such as drunk driving, through facilitating bonds to the college community (Cherry, 1987). The results of this study clearly suggest that finding ways to foster academic commitment and achievement will help prevent drunk driving. Additionally, heavy involvement in study also appears to curb the prevalence of drunk driving. An especially important implication is that commuter students are an important target for prevention efforts. Both this undertaking and a study by Hartford et al. (2002) found higher rates of drinking and driving among college students who reside with their parents. However, since commuter students are normally considered to be less integrated to the campus community (Jacoby, 2000), they may be a difficult group to reach. Perhaps consideration should be given to providing educational literature to commuters about drunk driving when they register their vehicle for campus parking.

Although drinking and driving is clearly a problem among college students, there have been no previous efforts to apply sociological theories of deviance to this behavior. This study tested an explanation of drinking and driving by college students that was derived from social bond theory. The results indicate that social bond theory receives mixed support. On the one hand, it appears that both the commitment component and the belief component are negatively related to drunk driving. In other words, students who are committed to conformity (as demonstrated by their academic performance and religious commitment) and adhere to traditional belief systems are less likely to drink and drive. On the other hand, neither involvement component nor the attachment component was related to drinking and driving in the manner predicted by this theory. It has been argued (Leonard & Decker, 1994; Shoemaker, 2005) that the exact relationship between the social bond and deviant behavior is age specific. This means that certain components of the bond may be more significant in preventing deviance in one age group, but perhaps not in other age groups. Therefore, it is possible that only commitments and beliefs are important in inhibiting deviant behavior among university students.

However, the results of this study indicate the usefulness of sociological theories of deviance in explaining the problem of drinking and driving among college students. Future investigations of this topic would surely benefit from using these theories. One promising possibility would be social learning theory, which is the most empirically supported sociological explanation of crime, deviance, and delinquency (Akers, 2000). Moreover, future studies that use a longitudinal research design would surely be helpful. A longitudinal study can examine social processes, such as bonding and learning, which transpire over time.


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Ohio Northern University


University of Louisville


Western Carolina University

                                           Drinking and Driving

Measure                               n     Yes      No    [chi square]

Attachment Component

Attachment to Parents
  High (4.01-5.00)                  1095   25.0%   75.0%      1.64
  Low (0.00-4.00)                    363   28.4%   71.6%
Live with Family
  Yes                                447   30.6%   69.4%      7.57 **
  No                                1012   23.7%   76.3%

Commitment Component

Grade Point Average
  2.0 and lower                       84   35.7%   64.3%     19.17 **
  2.1-3.0                            766   29.2%   70.8%
  3.1 and higher                     591   20.0%   80.2%
Religious Commitment
  Low (0.00-2.00)                    250   31.2%   68.8%     22.45 **
  Medium (2.01-4.00)                 539   30.5%   69.5%
  High (4.01-5.00)                   667   19.8%   80.2%
Commitment to Higher Education
  Low (0.00-4.00)                    396   34.6%   65.4%     21.94 **
  High (4.01-5.00)                  1063   22.6%   77.5%


Hours Studying
  0-5 hours                          460   35.4%   64.6%     43.50 **
  6-15 hours                         767   23.9%   76.1%
  16 hours or more                   231   13.0%   87.0%
Hours Working
  None                               501   21.7%   78.3%     57.47 **
  1-15 hours                         437   17.0%   83.0%
  16 hours or more                   509   37.3%   62.7%
Hours in Extracurricular
  None                               471   29.1%   70.9%     10.22 **
  1-10 hours                         676   21.9%   78.1%
  11 hours or more                   307   29.4%   70.6%


Respect for Authority
  Low (0.00-2.50)                    548   32.3%   67.7%     19.34 **
  High (2.51-5.00)                   911   21.9%   78.1%
Acceptance of Conventional
  Low (0.00-2.50)                    214   41.1%   58.9%     50.79 **
  Medium (2.51-3.75)                 676   28.3%   71.7%
  High (3.76-5.00)                   568   17.1%   82.9%

** p<.01
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