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 He will be back in two weeks.

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.



  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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  9. klove says:

    This is the worst piece I’ve ever heard you do.

    First, you blame the victim. Then you use the excuse term “car accident,” as any AA member knows there is no such thing as an “accident.” The correct term is “car crash.”

    Excessive drinking is the problem not walking.

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    • pawnman says:

      I’m certainly not for drunk driving. I think this article is simply highlighting that walking home drunk is more dangerous than people tend to think.

      As for there being no such thing as an “accident”…I’m going to have to disagree, as someone who has been both the responsible party and the person hit. It’s not an intentional act. Accidents happen, even between completely sober drivers.

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  10. jon says:

    Its not walking that’s the problem, nor is it drinking. Join M.A.D. – Mothers Against Driving!

    Wanna talk Freakanomics? Imagine if the 37,000 car-related deaths were occurring as a result of plane crashes. That would amount to approximately three jumbo jet crashes per month, every day of the year. Everyone killed. Suddenly an “acceptable” risk would scare the living shit out of everyone and we’d ground all the planes till we figured out what was going wrong!

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    • Eliza says:

      Totally agree. ~100% of fatal crashes involve cars!

      Anyone care to look at the type of roadways on which fatal crashes occurred? I bet the vast majority (pedestrians or drivers) are roads with average speeds greater than 30 mph. In my city on big party nights (Halloween, New Year’s) they shut down the main road to cars. No one there dies from drunk walking unless it is from alcohol poisoning.

      Bottom line is there is no fatal crash without a car
      (or at least they are rare to the point of statistical insignificance)

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  11. Zuckerfrosch says:

    I’m wondering if, in this study, the level of drunkenness was controlled for? I can imagine that people are willing to drive with a lower, but still illegal, BAC than they are willing to walk. So that by comparing just the numbers of people above a certain BAC may find more risk to walking, if controlled for how drunk they are, does it level off somewhat?

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  12. pawnman says:

    On the other hand, while drunk walking may be dangerous to yourself, no third party has ever been killed when they were run over by a drunk walker. While it may be a worse decision for the individual, they are internalizing all the costs rather than passing those costs on to other drivers or pedestrians.

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  13. Elizabeth says:

    Get the word on the dangers of drunk walking–great. Telling people it’s a statistically lower risk (TO YOURSELF) to drive drunk than to walk–immoral and irresponsible.

    This the same complaint I’ve had about how Freakonomics approaches so many topics: voting, climate change, etc. There’s a lack of consideration for the morality of the conclusions that are tossed around during the piece. They are often not the main point, either, so I don’t understand why they are presented in the first place.

    The point here is that we’ve made progress on getting people not to drive drunk. We need to pay similar attention to people being near traffic in any way while drunk. But it’s irrelevant and not a choice anyone should be making between “should I drive or walk?” Now we know that the answer is “Neither–get someone sober to drive or stay where you are.” But answering the question with “Your chances of dying are lower if you drive” is irrelevant and stupid because it doesn’t at all address the consequences to others (where were the statistics about that?).

    Freakonomics overreaches in its efforts to be shocking or attention-getting.

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  14. dpwe says:

    Which economist is going to be able to measure the significant increase in alcohol-related car crashes among NPR listeners that directly results from this piece?

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  15. Dan says:

    As others noted, the level of drunkenness may be different for drivers versus pedestrians.

    In college, at the lovely Cornell, I witnessed on some nights people so drunk that they could not stand crawling home. Kind of like Frogger.

    People that drunk do not drive because they cannot determine which of their three keys is their car key or what their car looks like or where it is parked. Even if they could figure out all of the above, they still wouldn’t be able to put the car in drive. And if it is a manual, they will be sitting there dealing with the clutch until morning or they pass out on the steering wheel.

    Go Big Red!

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  16. Alex says:

    I would argue that you have to take the driver/walker’s level of drunkenness into consideration. For most people walking is used as the alternative when they realize that it would not be safe to drive. In some cases you may be incapable of unlocking your car door, let alone driving it home. But walking is always an option, even if it means falling over a few time along the way. Therefore I would assume that the average level of inebriation for walkers is much higher than for drivers. Unless we look at data sets with equivalent blood alcohol levels the comparison is irrelevant (but still interesting)

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  17. Caleb b says:

    Funny what a controversial subject will do to the emotions of readers.

    Freakonomics is NOT saying to drive drunk, or that if you have a choice btw driving or walking, that it’s logical to drive bc you’ll be safer. Read the post! They AREN’T saying that.

    What they ARE saying is that walking home is more dangerous than you think. Solution? Call a cab. Jeeze people, read BEFORE you comment.

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  18. John says:

    My wife, sis-in-law and bro-in-law were leaving a party in Center City, Philadelphia and saw a woman in front of us who was obviously drunk. She was all by herself, which in of itself can be dangerous in Philly, and was stumbling around and at one point almost fell into a parked car.

    We caught up to her and asked if she needed help. Fortunately, she had only been walking about a block and was meeting a friend on the corner immediately in front of us. We waited with her until he arrived and saw them off.

    Having seen that I can definitely attest to the dangers of walking drunk.

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  19. Emrys Tyler says:

    I’d love to hear an freakonomic take on the next step in the “don’t do this drunk,” “don’t do that drunk” sequence. To wit: is it wiser not to do -anything- drunk? Conversely, does drinking make -every- activity more dangerous? I had friends in college who declared that they played pool better after two or three drinks and, of course, danced better. But we never tested these assertions in any scientific way. Is it statistically accurate to say, “You’re better off just not getting drunk?”

    Thanks for the continued unveiling of the hidden side of everything!

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  20. tom gebhard says:

    The problem with this analysis is that it’s difficult to generalize. How did they control for how drunk each person was? Maybe it’s safer to drive when you’re a little buzzed, but driving becomes more dangerous as you become drunker and drunker. Additionally, how do you control for location? A pedestrian would be a lot more likely to be hit by a car in Manhattan versus a rural location. If your route home involves lots of hills and there’s snow/ice on the ground, that obviously makes it more dangerous than at another time of year (though I suppose that would make the driving more dangerous too).

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  21. Jeffrey Ellis says:

    Despite Leavitt’s defense of the “mile for mile” comparison, the model just does not work. A more extreme example would be comparing the odds of an astronaut dying versus a pedestrian on a mile per mile basis (neither drunk, of course). On a mile-to-mile comparison, the odds would likely be closer, since and astronaut flies tens of thousands of miles per trip compared to just one or two for the average pedestrian’s journey. However, on a per trip basis, the pedestrian has much lower odds of being killed. You can choose your own way of looking at the statistics, depending on what your position is. It’s like choosing the “average” (mode/median/mean) that suits your own personal political position on marginal tax cuts

    The real point of arguing these statistics obscures the truth, which is that undertaking any task that requires sound judgment, while drunk, is much likelier to have a bad outcome.

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  22. Nik says:

    What I find most surprising is that no one took issue with the claim that it is eight time more dangerous to walk than drive, yet the numbers are 1,400 drunk pedestrians to 6,970 drunk drivers.

    If anything, that tells me walking is almost five times safer. Admittedly, that’s a bit out of context and biased. To use their actual percentages, 35% of walkers and 41% of drivers. That’s still a 6% difference in favor of drunken walking being more safe.

    The ONLY thing remotely close to a factor of eight was in a comment, in regard to a walker being exposed to danger for 40 minutes whereas a driver is only exposed to danger for five for the same trip.

    Sensationalist article is sensationalist.

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    • pawnman says:

      On the other hand, that is only people killed. How many people were in an accident and survived? Which accidents are more serious and cause long-term harm?

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  23. jon says:

    Also, we need to take into account the speed of the cars that hit the pedestrians causing the fatality. According to You have an 80% chance of being killed if the car that hits you is driving at 40mph. At 30mph your chance of becoming a fatality is 45%. Your chances are best if the car hits you at 20mph or less. Then, you only have a 5 percent chance of getting killed.

    So, road engineering as well as drivers on the road play a bigger part than your decision to walk instead of drive. Again, without the cars, there is no fatality.

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  24. Chris says:

    Yes, Indeed.

    8 years back, the day after Christmas, I made it my stubborn mission to walk the three or so miles back to my house while very drunk. At some point I went to cross the street and WHAM! I remember waking up in the emergency room briefly that night, and then the next morning. I was lucky on all counts, including getting hit 0.3 miles from the biggest trauma center in CT, being covered by the LAST DAY of my health insurance which covered the $90,000 and five surgeries, and making a complete recovery. Don’t walk drunk – by all rights I should be dead or crippled.

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  25. says:

    The drunk walker will rarely kill anyone else. And I have seen drunks survive being hit by vehicles that a sober person would not survive. (it helps to be relaxed when struck). ER RN/EMT-P
    But the drinker should shoulder the burden.

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  26. Dave says:

    The gaping hole in this analysis is how individual behaviour affects others. Walking home drunk, while a danger to oneself, is likely to do little harm to others. Driving drunk however, is far more likely to harm others.

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  27. Jon says:

    Helmets for everyone!

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  28. Yuki says:

    I suspect that this podcast is about the perils of *walking*, more so than what their title alludes to. Where is the rate of fatalities for non-drunk pedestrian vs. non-drunk driver? Is that statistically different from drunk pedestrian vs. drunk driver?

    They just presented their findings without a control group.

    Whether the stats are measured in per unit distance or per unit time should not be significant if we are we are trying to tease out the effect of *drunkenness* on walking and driving, even though many of the points raised in earlier comments are very good and may lead to different studies.

    I am personally indifferent as to the claim they make in the podcast, but the lack of science bothers me.

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  29. Peter Jacobsen says:

    Victim blaming is a subtle process, cloaked in kindness and concern.
    — William Ryan, 1970, Victim Blaming.

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  30. Matthew says:

    You’re all obviously missing the main point of this very clever analysis.

    If you are drunk and decide to go to sleep where you are, your chances of dying approach 100% (per km).

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  31. Greg A says:

    The lack of any data on non-injured pedestrians is the alpha and omega of this story. This is not the hidden side of anything, this is simply manufactured statistics of the worst kind. Also you are isolating the wrong variable — the predictor for pedestrian fatalities is usually route planning, not intoxication. It’s just that a histogram of fatalities vs. date is more conveniently arrived at than one of fatalities vs. urban design. In other words, rather than going for the interesting, true, and hidden story you went for the stupid, false, and obvious one. I expected better, I guess because I never really paid attention to your work.

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  32. Jade says:

    So, walking drunk is a problem, what about walking while listen to music? I would be curious to know how they compare, and what about while talking on the phone?

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  33. Aaron says:

    As I see it, it’s just another reason for people to use our web service and iPhone application — It’s a free, one-of-a-kind service providing adult beverage consumers with options for getting home safely. FreeRideHome uses an individual’s current location to find safe and sober driver programs offered in their area, and puts him or her in touch with these programs. Many of the sober driver programs offer free or discounted services. The FreeRideHome App makes getting home safely as easy as a touch of a button.

    Proceeds from the FreeRideHome App are used to promote this service and ensure people get home safely after a night out. Remember to always drink responsibly.

    The application cap be download for free at

    Together, we can make drunk driving history!

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  34. Seth says:

    I heard the article on Marketplace and I agree that this is a double edged sword of which risky behavior do we want. Don’t Drive drunk, but don’t walk either. The real problem is drunk drivers running over drunk walkers. I hate it when that happens…jk

    Glad to see the other comment about applying technology to solve a problem. It’s about fundamentally changing our perception of what’s cool and acceptable behavior.

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  35. PL says:

    So, the smart question is how do you resolve the “entire” issue, whether driving or walking? Well, I would say its really simple, especially based on the current use of technology / phones, current college programs available and a new iPhone App I signed up too. If you check out the current “FreeRideHome” iphone App, it allows you to press a button on your iPhone, figures out where your located, and provides sober ride program options to get you home…whether driving or walking…you can choose one of the providers or you can call a cab in your location. Having used the App, I would use the programs in that many are either FREE or will bring you home in your OWN CAR! Anything else available like this providing sober ride programs or cabs?

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  36. DP says:

    Really……Drunk walking as a issue!!!! Unless you are 400 pounds plus I dont think you can do much damage in a hit and run. Having had a friend killed by a Drunk Driver I am in favor of anything to get people to willingly pull themselves out from behind the wheel. This freeridehome site makes sense and it lets people think they are still in control.

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  37. MP says:

    All I can say is if you have to choose between driving drunk and walking drunk, WALK! At least you won’t kill me!

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  38. Olive McConnell says:

    I disagree with your comment regarding drunk walkers. I have had the misfortune to experience a drunk walker on the motorway a section that had no lighting , I was on my way home from work.I just heard a bang to my car I thought I had a flat tyre then something landed on my windscreen I later found out it was a man. If I had to have been driving my previous car he would have come through the windscreen and I would not be writing to you now I had just got my new car the evening before( just 24 hours.) The truck behind me had to drive into the ditch to avoid hitting me from the back. The man’s body was dragged several hundred yards up the motorway by a SUV who had no choice to either hit the truck or go straight and drive over the bundle he was later to find out was a body. It seems the man fell off my car back onto the centre of the motorway.The SUV was carrying 6 children. He thanked me at the inquest for saving so many lives.
    My first reaction was to get out of the car luckily my door was damaged which most certainly would have caused a pileup I was shocked and not realising I was still on the motorway. I had stopped my car and managed to switch on the hazzard lights which alerted the truck behind.
    So drunk walking does pose a real danger to drivers.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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  39. Mitchell says:

    The problem with the comparison between drunk walking and drunk driving is that the study assumes being drunk is a constant variable. They do not consider how intoxicated the users are during their fatalities. A person who knows they will be walking home is far more likely to have a higher BAC than a person who knows they will be driving home. Also, how many of the drunk walking fatalities were caused by a drunk driver?

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  40. Alan says:

    I wish they would post better stats on how they come up with the number eight times more likely to be killed drunk walking than drunk driving.

    They mention “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.”

    So thats 6970 dead drunk drivers
    And 1400 dead drunk pedestrians.

    On an average night I’d say there are many more miles covered by drunk walkers than drunk drivers…. Am I missing something here?

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  41. Ivan says:

    It’s even safer to drunk-drive a tank while shooting its main gun at random.

    Safer for the driver, that is.

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  42. Bennnn says:

    I don’t think those of us who enjoy drinking (and driving… I KID!… kinda) should be convinced that it’s ok to drive after drinking, but rather all of us, should realize the dangers of walking home drunk. All of us who are responsible have done it countless time, and just have to think back to realize how true these stats are.

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  43. Drifter says:

    Day 3 of my sorbiety attempt not so sure if having lunches with coworkers is such a good idea.

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  44. jbrown says:

    I have a spreadsheet of 250 victims of walking home drunk from the US in the past 20 years. All went missing walking home from bars. If their bodies were found, they were in bodies of water- rivers, lakes, retaining ponds, etc. 80% are caucasian, college aged men of average height and weight. Many were asked by a cab driver if he needed a free ride home. Drunk walking alone is very dangerous. They are vulnerable because they are trusting (college aged) and drunk (impaired decision making). I think many were drugged in the bars.

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