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Is Drunken Walking the Newest Traffic Scourge?

August 29, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

You can't drive drunk in Minnesota without risking serious consequences. You can't even vote if you're "obviously intoxicated." But there are no laws against drunken walking, biking or transit riding, and any vestigial public drunkenness ordinances are seldom, if ever, enforced.

"You don't see it too often," said Robert J. Shane, a Minneapolis defense lawyer. "You're more likely to get hauled to detox nowadays." I telephoned Shane because he was listed as a "qualified public intoxication attorney" on the website, a distinction of which he was not even aware.

If the latest American traffic safety buzz gains more traction, however, there's a small chance Shane could be getting more business in a well-meaning but misguided crackdown on drunken walking. That's because federal officials, in a recent national traffic fatality report, highlighted the more than one-third of pedestrians killed in 2011 who had blood-alcohol levels above the 0.08 percent driving limit.

Naturally, transportation reporters, always on the lookout for a fresh angle, grabbed onto this with both hands. "Just as drinking and driving can be deadly, so can drinking and walking," began a story by the Associated Press' Joan Lowy.

The article notes that "anti-drunk driving campaigns may be encouraging more people to walk home after a night of drinking." Then she quotes a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association saying, "We've done a good job of educating people about the dangers of drunk driving, but we haven't done such a good job of reminding them that other drunk behavior, including walking, can be just as dangerous."

Jonathan Adkins, the spokesman, also told Lowy that alcohol can impair pedestrians' judgment and lead them to bad decisions, like crossing a road in the wrong place, crossing against the light or "trying to beat a bus that's coming."

This is all true enough. So are the article's warnings about the dangers of drunken bicycling and even "distracted walking" while focusing on a mobile device, two newly flagged phenomena that kill far fewer than the 1,547 pedestrians who died in 2011 at 0.08 or above. And that toll was less than 5 percent of the national traffic body count.

Still, Lowy noted that fully half of the 25-to-40-year-old pedestrian fatalities were above 0.08 while just 13 percent of drivers involved in crashes that killed pedestrians were legally drunk. Does this mean drunken walkers were three or four times more to blame for their own deaths than the motorists who hit them?

Of course, that would be nonsense. Like bringing a knife to a gunfight, getting hit by a motor vehicle while on foot or two wheels is a grossly unfair matchup. Drunken, distracted or just plain careless driving poses a mortal danger to not only the person behind the wheel, but also anyone who happens into the way. Walking with less than one's full faculties imperils only the pedestrian.

It's easy to forget this important distinction, though, when the focus shifts to drunken or distracted pedestrians, who, by the way, used to be known merely as "people" before the dawn of our autocentric age. Take this 2-year-old report from the usually insightful Freakonomics:

"Every mile walked drunk turns out to be eight times more dangerous than the mile driven drunk. To put it simply, if you need to walk a mile from a party to your home, you're eight times more likely to die doing that than if you jump behind the wheel and drive your car that same mile."

Well, duh! No doubt you're safer encased in two tons of steel and multiple airbags than protected only by your party clothes. As noted above, you're also vastly more a threat to others.

And on December 31, 2009, Science Daily reported that New Year's is the most dangerous time to be out walking. Hardly any surprise there, either, although it was interesting that a study of the 410 pedestrians killed on New Year's Days from 1986 to 2002 found only 58 percent had high blood-alcohol concentrations. Missing from the article, however, was any mention of intoxication of the drivers who hit these victims. How many of them do you suppose were plowed?

I'm not the first commentator to point out this fuzzy thinking about "WUI."

"Applying the same behavioral standards to walking that we attach to driving is a creeping trend," wrote Angie Schmitt on Streetsblog Capitol Hill. "Walking is a right, not a revokable privilege like driving. Kids walk. Blind people walk. People with poor judgment walk... Pedestrians aren't, in themselves, doing anything dangerous, at least until you add cars to the equation.

"The core problem is that it isn't safe for people to walk. In too many places, this is because we've designed intersections like high-stakes obstacle courses for people on foot. We allow people to drive at potentially fatal speeds in pedestrian-rich areas. [For a Minnesota example, see my December 2012 post on a rash of pedestrian deaths on Hwy. 10] And now we're talking about pedestrian deaths in a way that equates walking with driving."

That said, and endorsed here, I'll still pass along the pedestrian prudence advised in the Science Daily article: Don't wear dark clothing at night. Walk on sidewalks when available and use designated crosswalks. If possible, walk in a group, which is more visible to motorists, or with a sober escort (designated walker?!?).

But, even more important, the article added: "Drivers need to take extra care in locations where people drink, such as areas with large numbers of bars, since intoxicated pedestrians have slower reflexes and can be unpredictable."

And that's putting the onus for the safety of foot-powered travelers squarely where it belongs.

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  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    September 4, 2013 at 8:40 am

    Perhaps party hosts and other guests (designated drivers?) could offer rides home to drunk persons, especially on New Year’s Eve when it’s cold enough to kill the drunk person by freezing even before she/he’s hit by a car. 

    Should there be a public education effort?

  • Tim P says:

    September 4, 2013 at 10:42 am

    “Walking with less than one’s full faculties imperils only the pedestrian.”  That simply is not true.  If an intoxicated person steps out into traffic, drivers, passengers, bikers, and other pedestrians located in the vicinity are all imperiled.

    “The onus for the safety of foot-powered travelers” rests not only with drivers and bikers, it is imperative that pedestrians be responsible for their own safety and the safety of those they encounter.