The Perils of Drunk Walking: A New Marketplace Podcast

(Photo: Chris Turner)

In our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, Stephen Dubner looks at why the first decision you make in 2012 can be riskier than you think. (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript.)

The risks of driving drunk are well-established; it’s an incredibly dangerous thing to do, and produces massive collateral damage as well. So if you have a bit too much to drink over the holiday and think you’ll do the smart thing and walk home instead — well, that’s not so smart after all. Steve Levitt has compared the risk of drunk walking with drunk driving and found that the former can potentially pose a greater risk:

LEVITT: For 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.

Levitt is not advocating that people drive drunk instead — but rather that we look harder at the numbers behind drunk walking.  In 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, about 34,000 people died in traffic accidents. Roughly half of them were drivers — 41 percent of whom were drunk. There were more than 4,000 pedestrians killed — and 35 percent of them were drunk. Of course, a drunk walker can’t hurt or kill someone else the way a drunk driver can, and people drive drunk much farther distances than they’d walk drunk. But the danger is hardly insignificant, says trauma surgeon Thomas Esposito. His hospital, Loyola University Health System, outside of Chicago, consistently sees a spike in patients who have been struck by cars during this time of year:

ESPOSITO: I’d rather work New Year’s Eve than New Year’s Day. Because a lot of the time on New Year’s Day, that’s when people start to realize someone’s missing, where are they? And then they find them on the bottom of the stairs or the side of the road, injured.

This annual spike at Loyola mirrors nationwide trends. A report by the journal Injury Prevention found that January 1 is the deadliest day for pedestrians. 

Here’s where you can listen to Marketplace on a station near you.  

Audio Transcript

Jeremy Hobson: It's Freakonomics time. Every two weeks we explore the hidden side of everything. Today, why the first decision you make in 2012 is riskier than you think. Here's Stephen Dubner.

Stephen Dubner: Happy New Year, everybody! Now, how are you getting home from that party? If you're in New York City, where I live, good luck getting a taxi. And if you've had some champagne and you're even thinking about driving home... well, don't.

Public service announcement: Drinking and driving is not only against the law, but it can be deadly.

Public service announcement: Over the limit, under arrest.

Public service announcement: Friends don't let friends drive drunk.

All right, so maybe you'll walk home. Smart move, right?

Steven Levitt: That's a terrible idea, walking drunk is one of the most dangerous activities you can engage in.

That's Steve Levitt. He's my Freakonomics friend and co-author. He's also an economist at the University of Chicago.

Levitt: Truly, if you're faced exactly with two choices, walking drunk or driving drunk, you absolutely should drive drunk.

Now wait a minute -- Levitt is not advocating that people drive drunk. We know how incredibly dangerous that is. But what about drunk walking? Is that dangerous? Consider a few numbers. In 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, about 34,000 people died in traffic accidents. Roughly half of them were drivers -- 41 percent of whom were drunk. Now, there were about 4,000 pedestrians killed -- and 35 percent of them were drunk. Here's Levitt again:

Levitt: For every mile walked drunk, turns out to be eight times more dangerous than the mile driven drunk. So just 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.

Now there are some caveats here. A calculation like this requires some assumptions, because there's no government database on drunk walking. Also, people drive drunk much farther distances than they'd walk drunk. And most important: a drunk walker can't hurt or kill someone else the way a drunk driver can. That said, the death toll from drunk walking is undeniable.

Thomas Esposito: The danger of impaired walking is not insignificant. And certainly when it comes down to you, it's definitely significant.

Thomas Esposito is a trauma surgeon at Loyola University Health System in the Chicago area. He's used to seeing a New Year's Day spike in pedestrians who've been hit by cars. As a matter of fact, January 1st is the deadliest day of the year for pedestrians -- and 58 percent of the people who died were drunk.

Esposito: I'd rather work New Year's Eve than New Year Day. Because a lot of the time on New Year's Day, that's when people start to realize someone's missing, where are they? And then they find them at the bottom of the stairs or on the side of the road, injured.

Esposito also has personal experience with drunk walking. A few years ago, his cousin was hit by a car and killed while walking home from a New Year's party. He'd been drinking, thought it was better to leave his car, and go home on foot. Esposito believes we've done a pretty good job getting out the "don't drink and drive" message -- but we could a lot better with "don't drink and walk." Here's Steve Levitt again.

Levitt: For 20 years, we've been told you should never, ever drive drunk. We should have been told you should never, ever walk drunk and you should never, ever drive drunk. And because nobody thought about it when we were coming up with what was moral and immoral, somehow now, drunk walking just can't find its way into the immoral box.

So listen, have a great New Year's celebration, but if a friend has been drinking and starts reaching for the car keys -- or decides to set off on foot -- don't let him. Because remember: friends don't let friends walk drunk.

I'm Stephen Dubner for Marketplace.

Hobson: Stephen Dubner, our Freakonomics correspondent. He puts out a podcast, too -- you can get that on iTunes and hear more at Freakonomics.com. He will be back in two weeks.

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  1. Nanno says:

    Should I try convincing my (the Dutch) government to not shut down all public transport on New Year’s Eve or cycle (yes that is a common thing around here) back home?

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  2. Jason T. says:

    I have always had a nagging question on this topic, ever since reading this supposition in Super_Freakonomics…

    Is it entirely fair to measure the chances of death or injury per mile? A two-mile drive for a drunk is a scant five minutes or so, and it’s unlikely (though certainly not impossible) something to go wrong in five minutes. On the other hand, that same two miles is going to be a good FORTY minutes by foot, a much greater span of time during which disaster can strike.

    As a matter of academic and intellectual curiosity, isn’t it better to measure the risks of drunk walking versus drunk driving per unit time rather than per unit distance?

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    • Michael G says:

      Jason, When leaving someplace intoxicated, the decision isn’t “Should I drive 40 minutes or walk 40 minutes?” The decision is “I have to get home which is about a mile away, should I drive or walk?” This is why the measurement is in per unit distance. So basically, you are deciding which would be less dangerous to go a specific distance, not for a specific amount of time.

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      • Pål says:

        Well, as the article states “people drive drunk much farther distances than they’d walk drunk” and obviously there are a lot of drunk people driving long distances, which would not happend if they were limited to either walk or stay home. But I agree that if you are to measure the risk of death between “The bar” and your home, it makes sense to measure it in time and not only distance

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      • Eric M. Jones. says:

        Jason T.: “As a matter of academic and intellectual curiosity, isn’t it better to measure the risks of drunk walking versus drunk driving per unit time rather than per unit distance?”

        I totally agree. Rule of Thumb: Dangerous activities are best measured in Exposure Time, not distance.

        Think of it like this: The time one spends in a dangerous situation can have many elements, such as speed, weather, color of clothing, traffic density, being chased by enraged zombies, etc. You can either account for these elements or just use the exposure time as a sort of averaging factor. You and a hungry tiger are in a jungle. Do you measure how far the tiger and human run, or only how long you are in danger?

        Where I live, snowfalls force pedestrians onto the roadway where they get killed (and buried) by snowplows. Several snowplow drivers confided in me that they usually snowplow drunk.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        I thought the typical thing to do was to compare trip vs trip, regardless of the distance or time involved. This is how we compare the relative safety of flying vs driving, for example.

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    • Scott R says:

      Couldn’t agree more – this topic in Super Freakonomics pretty much ruined the whole book for me. To make up a ‘translation factor’ for drunk miles walked, with no justification, and use it to pull out a final answer – just did not seem credible.

      The lack of any attempt to justify that factor was the worst part, to me.

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    • Bennnn says:

      My mind was blown when I heard this on the podcast, and now you blew my mind again with that point. Maybe it SHOULD be measure in time instead of distance.

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  3. Don Clark - Atlanta says:

    A friend of mine also got on a bike drunk, was either hit by a car or hit a parked car. Somehow made it home. Woke up the next morning with a broken jaw, laptop computer gone (had it in his bag with him) and bike gone.

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  4. RogerP says:

    Around 50% of festive season road deaths in South Africa are pedestrians, drunk or otherwise. Your chances of being a fatality statistic are biased before you set foot outside the door.

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  5. Jeff says:

    Well for one Thomas Episoto Chicago is way over crowed and nobody there can drive worth a damn anyway,your in danger walking or driving sober there let alone drunk!!!!

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  6. Tont says:

    How many of those drunk pedestrians are hit y drunk drivers?

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  7. wee 162 says:

    Isn’t the biggest part missing out of this dataset how many people walk drunk compared to those who drive drunk? It’s always difficult to extrapolate from anecdotal evidence but between a few friends and me we must have walked thousands of miles drunk. We’d never be part of these statistics unless we were hit by a vehicle…

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  8. James says:

    Seems as though this is missing the most important point, which is that the danger to yourself in drunk walking or drunk driving is a risk you take on yourself, and so is really no one else’s business. What matters is the risk your behavior poses to other people. I’d suggest that, unlike drunk driving, drunk walking poses minimal risk to anyone else.

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    • Rubert P Suckerman says:

      But what if you stagger into a busy roadway, causing a car to swerve, in the process causing a horrific head on collision, while you are unharmed? I am sure this has happened, and will happen somewhere in the world tonight.

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