“Drunk Walking:” A True Pedestrian Safety Issue, or Victim-Blaming?
We’ve all heard of driving under the influence, but what about walking under the influence, or “drunk walking?” There are numerous educational campaigns and initiatives out there to inform people about the consequences of drunk driving, but it seems that there is much less awareness of the dangers of walking drunk. Stumbling home seems like an obviously safer alternative to driving under the influence, but does it really put pedestrians at any less risk of injury or death?
One thing we can all agree on is the reality of pedestrian injury and death, particularly in New York State. Preliminary 2020 data from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) shows that New York ranks seventh on the list of US states with the most pedestrian fatalities between January and June of 2020 with 101 deaths. In fact, New York is one of seven states – Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, New York, North Carolina and Texas— that accounted for more than half (54%) of all pedestrian deaths across the country in the first half of 2020.
While data on the causes of these 2020 pedestrian injuries and fatalities in New York is yet to come, 2018 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) shows that in 11 of the total 262 pedestrian deaths in New York in 2018— 4.2%— the pedestrian was classified as “under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or medication.” The same report attributed 9.6% of the total 6,283 pedestrian deaths across the nation in 2018 to the same causal factor. 2019 data from the GHSA shows that approximately 32% of fatally injured pedestrians in the US in 2019 were under the influence— a relatively steep jump from 2018.
Data from the FARS also indicates that since 1991, a higher proportion of pedestrians killed in traffic accidents have been more drunk than drivers killed in traffic accidents. While this is undoubtedly a concerning trend, the general idea has been sensationalized in many a headline, such as PBS News Hour’s 2018 article titled Pedestrian deaths are up nationwide, fueled by people who walk while drunk. While the national increase in pedestrian deaths is an accurate claim—about 22% since 2014— is it really fair to label this rise in pedestrian fatalities as “fueled” by people who are walking drunk?
Kea Wilson of StreetsBlog USA would argue, no. While some news outlets have compared walking and driving under the influence side-by-side, Ms. Wilson’s 2020 article, Federal ‘Drunk Walking’ Stats Are Flimsy — And Dangerous calls foul on this “false equivalence,” citing the facts that “choosing to hoof it home from the bar is both perfectly legal and inarguably safer than driving while drunk, which is a crime in all 50 states and resulted in the death of 10,511 road users in 2018 alone.” Another StreetsBlog USA post by a different author goes as far as calling the CBS article “a pathetic attempt to pin the rise in pedestrian fatalities on people who drink and walk," and considers it "victim-blaming."
What do industry professionals have to say?
“I’m not sure that an increase in pedestrian fatalities was actually fueled by people walking drunk,” said Cynthia Brown, Executive Director of the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety. “Too many other factors come into play here, such as failure of drivers to grant the right of way to pedestrians and the much more recent phenomenon of driver and pedestrian inattention due to cell phone use.”
Marge Lee, Director of DEDICATEDD (Drive Educated Drive Informed and Totally End Drunk Driving) recounts, “In 1990, the Ad Council’s ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk’ campaign was introduced. This campaign was instrumental in achieving a 10% reduction in alcohol related deaths between 1990 and 1991. Perhaps ‘drunk walking’ needs a similar campaign to raise awareness to this issue.”
Regardless of whether you personally view pedestrian intoxication as a big or small issue, it’s a fact that walking under the influence of alcohol, drugs, medication, or any mind-altering substance is more dangerous than walking sober. While there’s no legislation currently in place to prevent pedestrians from drunk walking, we can protect ourselves on an individual level by following existing New York State vehicle and traffic laws, using common sense, and making safe choices for ourselves as pedestrians, motorists, and cyclists.
New York State is taking numerous measures to tackle the issue of pedestrian and cyclist safety, all of which culminate in the New York State Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (PSAP). The plan emphasizes making streets safer by implementing the “Three Es—” engineering, enforcement, and education.
Walk Safe Long Island is part of the third “E,” education. Check the News page of our website for information about upcoming installments of our “Staying Safe on Our Streets” Virtual Workshop Series, which aims to educate our local communities about cyclist and pedestrian safety.