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. 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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  2. 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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  3. 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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  4. 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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  5. 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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  6. 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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  7. jon says:

    Also, we need to take into account the speed of the cars that hit the pedestrians causing the fatality. According to http://guide.saferoutesinfo.org/engineering/slowing_down_traffic.cfm 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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  8. 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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