Today ‘designated driver’ is a household phrase. But where did it come from? To mark our annual Designated Driver campaign this Christmas, where we offer drivers a free second soft drink on Coca-Cola, Schweppes or Appletiser, we look back at the history of the phenomenon…

These days a designated driver is a must-have on a night out. When you’re planning where to go, what to do and who to invite, choosing your designated driver is just part of the process. Christmas is a time when designated drivers are really doing something special, and helping friends and family get home safely.

"We’re offering designated drivers ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ on some of our most popular soft drinks at pubs, bars and restaurants."

With our campaign – run in partnership with the government’s THINK! road safety initiative - we’re offering designated drivers ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ on some of our most popular soft drinks at pubs, bars and restaurants up and down the country. It’s our way of saying thanks to the unsung heroes of the Christmas party season. But who started the Designated Driver idea, and where did it all begin?

Where did the term ‘Designated Driver’ come from?

Perhaps surprisingly, the idea and term was popularised by a professor of biochemistry at Harvard University.

Professor Jay Winsten helped set up the Harvard Alcohol Project in 1988 after visiting Scandinavia, where a Designated Driver programme had been developing since the 1920s. In 1988, traffic accidents were the leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds in the USA. Winsten’s team introduced the Scandinavian idea in the hope of saving some of those lives.

The power of influencers

One of the Harvard Alcohol Project’s big achievements was getting Hollywood and major TV networks involved. There was a rise in road safety awareness in the early 1980s, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the ‘Canadian Club Designated Driver Program’ urging people not to take the wheel after a drink. But with 26,000 people dying from alcohol-related car accidents each year in the USA, something extra was needed.

"The aim was to use mass communication to rapidly change social norms, making dangerous drink-driving socially unacceptable.”

Knowing that public service announcements were having a limited effect, the Harvard team decided to ‘slip the message in’ via mainstream media too. The aim was to use mass communication to rapidly change social norms, making dangerous drink-driving socially unacceptable.

Major US networks like ABC, CBS and NBS participated, and TV writers even included Designated Driver messages in the scripts of programmes like Cheers and The Cosby Show. These were subtle but powerful. Rather than the government telling people not to drink and drive, role models were showing them that it wasn’t acceptable or normal behaviour.

“A casual line like ‘I can’t drink, I’m driving’ from a well-loved TV star strengthened the idea.”

A casual line like ‘I can’t drink, I’m driving’ from a well-loved TV star strengthened the idea that responsible people would never drive after they’d had a drink. The notion of ‘Designated Driver’ gathered momentum, and eventually took its place in popular culture, with both explicit messages and casual references appearing on TV and in the movies.

Unforgettable campaigns

Some of the most moving and memorable Designated Driver campaigns have come out of the UK. The department for transport’s THINK! road safety campaign, who we’ve partnered with for our own Designated Driver campaign, has imprinted its message on a generation with hard-hitting ads like this one from 2016:


There’s no question that designated drivers have changed life for the better. Thanks to heroes all over the country, road deaths due to drink driving have fallen from 1,640 in 1967 to 230 deaths in 2012 – although there’s still more work to be done.

Coca-Cola’s Designated Driver campaign

For the ninth year in a row, we’ve brought back our popular Designated Driver campaign, which runs throughout December over Christmas and New Year’s Eve. To claim a free second soft drink on Coca-Cola, Schweppes or Appletiser, all designated drivers have to do is show their keys at the bar. Use our map to find your nearest participating venue: cocacola.co.uk/designateddriver

It’s our way of saying cheers for being hero!