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. Aaron says:

    As I see it, it’s just another reason for people to use our web service and iPhone application — FreeRideHome.com. 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 http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/freeridehome/id433385258?mt=8&ls=1

    Together, we can make drunk driving history!

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