Did Something I Do Actually Have an Impact on Public Policy?

(Photo: Smabs Sputzer)

I have spent the last 20+ years of my life doing academic research and popular writing on economics.  I’ve been lucky, and my work has gotten a lot of exposure.  I certainly have had a lot of fun along the way.

But, I think I can honestly say that no government has ever changed a law or a public policy as a result of my work.  Sometimes politicians cite my research in pushing an agenda but having talked to these politicians, it is clear they had the agenda first, and then they went looking for research – any research – that would support their position.  When I’ve taken unpopular stances (like saying children’s car seats don’t work well), there has never been even a sliver of political movement on the issue.

Finally, however, I think I may be on the verge of my first policy victory.

Bethel, Alaska, population 6,100, is thinking of criminalizing drunk walking.

Those of you who read SuperFreakonomics might remember that we lay bare the perils of drunk walking early in that book.  By our estimates, on a per mile basis walking drunk is far more dangerous than driving drunk.

The most common reaction to our finding, oddly, has been laughter, even though we are deadly serious.

The good people of Bethel, however, appear to have heard the call to action.  If the proposal passes, anyone caught walking drunk will face a $200 fine.

And that, my friends, is something to celebrate.  So break out a bottle of champagne on behalf of the Freakonomics team.  Unless, of course, you live in Bethel and are traveling by foot.

Kerry Waller

Is this really a good thing? At least injuries from drunk walking are to one's self, not to others. Won't this lead to more people getting into a car after drinking (at least on the margin)? Those injuries are not always to one's self...


I am sure there are plenty of injuries to motorists who swerve to avoid drunk pedestrians. Also, if you were a motorist who hits a drunk pedestrian, that could easily lead to emotional injury.


Take a look at the public intoxication fines in Hoboken NJ, it's now up to $2,000.

Of course I don't think it came from your research, it came from St. Paddy's Day debauchery.


This reminds me of an anecdote from when they first banned drink driving in Ireland. While discussing the regulations in the local pub, my grandfather was presented with an interesting objection to the new law:

"Well, sure, last week I drank a lot, I could hardly walk. How am I supposed to get home if I can't drive?"


Looking at Google Map of Bethel, Alaska, it looks like the only road in or out of the town go to the airport or the river port. All driving in town will be just that, in town. I wonder how many deaths/injuries they've had in the past 10 years due to drunk walking.

Now get New York to do this and there probably won't be enough jails to hold the daily criminals.

Will be an interesting test case if it passes.


Link to goggle map: https://maps.google.com/maps?q=bethel+alaska&hl=en&ll=60.78816,-161.774883&spn=0.054288,0.16531&sll=34.044984,-84.340346&sspn=0.184341,0.33062&t=h&hnear=Bethel,+Alaska&z=13

Seminymous Coward

Wow, they apparently have 75 24-7 taxicabs in Bethel, according to a city council member; there goes that objection.

All the same, I'm still not clear on how this is different from a public drunkenness law. Does the sidewalk not count as "on city streets or ice roads" or something? If the sidewalk doesn't count, do crosswalks? If drunk walking on the sidewalk is illegal, too, then how do you get from the bar to your cab legally?

It's hard to find decent news coverage of this, much less a link to the text of the proposed law. I can't even find it in the city council's minutes, which are, admirably, online.


Sidewalks? This is Alaska. In the winter, you're lucky if the roads get plowed.


More detailed story: http://kyuk.org/city-of-bethel-considers-tweaking-decency-laws/

The (real) money quote: "Right now, state statues do outlaw public intoxication and other decency laws, but since the [Bethel Municipal Code] has not been updated to reflect that, the state gets the money from the fines."

tung bo

I also admire the rule against "public excretion". I hope the city council didn't work up a sweat creafting these rules - it might be illegal!

Dan McKeon

my guess is this will be a case study of the law of unintended consequences if it passes...


From your calculations in SuperFreakonomics, you said that 1 in 140 miles driven is driven drunk and assumed the same held for walking. This is a fundamentally wrong assumption. For any number of reasons, including that walking drunk is not illegal, people probably spend a much larger proportion of their time walking drunk. This difference is probably enough to wipe out the effect. Second, there are much fewer externalities to walking drunk.


"Drunk" isn't binary. Drivers considered drunk in traffic accidents are probably less drunk than pedestrians in traffic accidents. I'd like to see mortality/km controlled for BAC.


The math supporting this is based on the assumption that the proportion of people that drunk walk is the same as the proportion that drunk drive. Never assume! I would think in this country many more people drunk drive than drunk walk, given the urban sprawl and suburban lifestyles. People that live in walkable downtown areas seems small relative to those living in non-walkable areas.

Jim B.

This is actually troubling. While drunk walking may be riskier (to the person who is drunk) than drunk driving, the risk seems fully internalizes. Given the negative externality imposed on other drivers (and walkers of all BAC levels) by drunk drivers, raising the penalties and enforcement of laws against drunk walking risks increasing the incidence of the externality-producing drunk-driving problem.
In addition "drunk walking" is already generally illegal most places, though loosely enforced. It's usually referred to as "public intoxication."


This is a good thing in my mind. Obviously there will still be people that break the law but the fine benefits the local government of Bethel and then there are the people that will obey the law and avoid drunk walking so no matter what this has a positive impact on the small community of Bethel.


It's the 'per-mile' bit that worries me.

How far do drunk people walk on average, compared to driving? If the drunk walker takes a years' worth of walks to cover the distance that the drunk driver covers in one night, then your policy may be overkill.

Put another way, what's the per-mile accident rate of SOBER pedestrians v. drivers? I don't know the stats, but I would bet you 10 bucks they'd show that walking is more dangerous driving. This would suggest that we should advocate for pro-driving, anti-walking policies.

Mark Swenson

I am currently reading your book Freakonomics and I find the book delightful. I would like to respond to this podcast in a round-about way by first talking about something I have run across in you first chapters.

When you are discussing motivations for certain behaviors I feel you miss the mark or don't take into account the entire picture. For example, you state that the likely reason that subscribers to dating websites indicate they are open to dating people of any race and then don't contact potential dates that are racially different is due to a disconnect between wanting to be perceived as non-biased but are actually biased.

While I don't think you are wrong, I believe you have missed a major factor in the reason for this phenomenon. "Race" is ill-defined and certain racial characteristics may be considered unattractive while "Color" (the popular conception of race) may not be unattractive. A white man may not be opposed to dating a black woman (many would be excited to date Halle Berry, Beyonce, or Kelly Rowland), but they may be opposed to dating a woman with an unfamiliar name, who appears to be from an unattractive area, or has what they perceive to be unattractive physical characteristics.

There is also the possibility that a young man is probably not going to want to reduce potential dating prospects. While he may prefer white women to black women, he probably wants to ensure that he appears in black women's search results in the off chance that a black woman he finds attractive might contact him. Most young men interested in a physical relationship are only going to sort potential dates by specific physical characteristics that are "make or break" and race is not make or break even if they have a preference.

I have not, unfortunately, had the opportunity to read Superfreakonomics. I plan on reading it soon, and you may have addressed this in your comparison of drunk walking to drunk driving, but the public's motivation to curtail drunk driving is not out of any sense of protection of the drunk individual's life. It is to prevent the drunk driver from harming another driver. Since drunk walkers are unlikely to be capable of harming other pedestrians or drivers on the road, there is no public desire to reduce the incidents of drunk walking. I don't think it is too dissimilar from allowing people to participate in other needless, high-risk behavior that is low risk (or perceived to be low-risk) to society at large. If people want to smoke in their own home it is okay so long as I don't have to suffer from second hand smoke or pay higher insurance premiums. Smokers, drinkers, drug abusers...we don't tend to worry too much about activities that we perceive to only have negative affects on these individuals.


Jim Melendy

If a politician uses your research to get a law passed, then you had an effect on that law. It doesn't matter that the politician's motivation was independent of your research. The research was still used to convince enough other politicians to get the law passed.


I agree with Kerry, self-walkers mostly injure themselves. People should have autonomy over their body and if they choose to injure themselves they should be able to. People do not have autonomy over the bodies of others, i.e. no slavery. A car is a weapon and a drunk driver is playing russian roulette with the lives of innocent people. It's easy to murder someone when you are drunk out of your mind and speeding along. They could be kids, it could be a pregnant woman, etc. Also, based on crowd votes I think most people would prefer for a drunk person to kill themselves than to kill a car with 2 kids inside and a soccer mom.