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. 

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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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. 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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  8. 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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