The Perils of Drunk Walking (Ep. 55)

(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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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?

Jason T.

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?

Michael G

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.


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

Don Clark - Atlanta

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.


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.


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!!!!


How many of those drunk pedestrians are hit y drunk drivers?

wee 162

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...


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.


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.


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!


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?


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.


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.



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?


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!


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)