27

Friends don't let friends walk drunk

Drunk walking is riskier than you think. January 1st is the deadliest day of the year for pedestrians.

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.

Log in to post27 Comments

Pages

This is pretty stupid. Just another example of shit science justified by the media, and more morality getting shoved down our throats. The simple thing is, it's too silly. People have different reactions to alcohol. You can tell because person A stumbles all over the place, but person B can still stand and walk just fine. In addition, we already have too many laws saying what is wrong and immoral when any idiot whos taking philosophy 101 knows morality is very very debatable. We're a country of many beliefs and opinions. Drinking/walking would only impair our country's freedom. And besides, you can't live your life off statistics because if you do you'll be jacking off, working and watching TV. Please take away your silly safety laws for us risk takers and people who have a life. Thanks.

This is the most irresponsible story I have ever heard on NPR. To begin with Levitt's estimates of the relative risks of walking and driving drunk are essentially made up; he has way of knowing how many people walk or drive drunk in any given period of time and therefore he cannot accurately estimate these risks. (I'm a demographer and know about data.) But his numbers might encourage someone to drive rather than walk, when those are the choices on New Year's Eve. And people who drive drunk not only put themselves at risk, they put others in danger, too. This story needs a correction--and, frankly, an apology from Levitt for the fiction of his statistics--before New Year's Eve.

I thought that the point of Freakonomics was that you found the interesting and less discussed aspects of sociology and economics--but this story makes me think that you're actually just working to get yourself a spot on cable news.
It's easy to have Fun with Statistics and use them to reach Amusing and Counter-intuitive conclusions.--but it's Irresponsible and Reckless to do so to the extent that your headline and teaser blares out, "Don't Walk Drunk--Driving Drunk is MUCH Safer!" Sure, two minutes in, you list your "caveats"...and numbers 2 and 3 wipe that idiotic headline off the map: that comparing miles walked to miles driven is pointless, and that, oh yes, let's not forget: the drunk walker kills no-one but him/herself.
i could present a cute little powerpoint presentation that showed that it was safer to sit at home on New Year's Eve and inject Heroin into my arm--after all, the number of heroin overdoses on New Year's Eve is far lower than the number of Drunk Walking or Drunk Driving fatalities. Correct? Yes. Hence, I propose that your next headline be, "Don't Drink--SHOOT HEROIN! It's Much Safer!" Following which you can present your caveats that of course, a much higher percentage of IV Heroin users encounter health difficulties over the long (or short) term than do social drinkers who imbibe on December 31. But at least you will have drawn in the audience.
The Simple, Correct, and Obvious headline for your story would have been: Don't Walk Drunk--Take A Cab.
Instead, you went for Sensationalism. At least a few bodies will be on your freakonomics hands come January 1. Congrats.

Like jfmarc, I am compelled to comment for the first time too about the irresponsibility and lack of perspective provided by this story. As a transportation professional who sometimes has to read crash reports about impaired pedestrians who have been killed by un-intoxicated drivers, I am too familiar with this situation. But never would I say, "well, they should have been in a car." Rather, I am appalled that our transportation infrastructure favors the car so heavily that walking without constant vigilance is clearly not an option. Instead of blaming the clearly more vulnerable of the people involved in the crash, why don't we instead demand that city streets be designed to slow vehicle traffic to a non-lethal speed (<25 mph perhaps) and provide a better buffer between pedestrians and the cars that might kill them? Also, Mr. Dubner begins his piece with "I live in New York City". You're in NYC, home to the best transit system in the country and there was not even one mention of transit as an option to get home? Too drunk to drive and too afraid of getting hit by a car to walk? Take the subway. Those of us in the midwest are dying (apparently literally) to have your options.

Walking in the presence of cars is dangerous, drunk or sober, because our transportation infrastructure favors motor-vehicle mobility over pedestrian safety. Dubner argues that since walking is dangerous, we should avoid walking. I argue that since walking is dangerous, we need to build more and better accommodations for pedestrians, which would help the drunk and the sober alike. Let's hear more stories on that.

+1 Street design would've been a really good part of this incomplete and dangerous story. Also missing, any geography or finer details about where and when. Are better-designed streets better off? Do sidewalks help? Are there more deaths in some states than others?

Should we design our streets for an inebriated person on NYE? That might have been an interesting question to ask. If they can navigate a block, anyone can. Instead, we get some numbers and a horrible summary that walking drunk is 8X more dangerous than driving drunk.

Wow… In my 20+ years of listening to public radio, this is ,by far, the most irresponsible story I’ve ever heard--- so much so that it compelled me to write in for the first time. I understand the point of your story… but within the first minute, Mr. Levitt states “Truly, if you're faced exactly with two choices, walking drunk or driving drunk, you absolutely should drive drunk.” I am appalled that anyone can come to this conclusion simply based on statistics. It is only stated as a “caveat” later in the story that drunk walkers can’t kill other people. As an emergency medicine physician who has delivered news to countless families over the last 12 years that their loved one was killed in a tragic accident caused by a drunk driver, this is no “caveat.” It is the entire point. If someone is going to drink irresponsibly and do anything when they are drunk, then they should “ABSOLUTELY WALK DRUNK.” I’d rather they hurt themselves instead of an innocent bystander. The point of your story should be that people shouldn’t do EITHER--- something you get to only at the end. But to open with the statement “…faced exactly with two choices…” you clearly missed the mark.

Pages

With Generous Support From...