Halloween night in Chapel Hill, N.C., is an institution. As they do in Georgetown and along countless other college strips, costumed revelers gather to walk, gawk and party into the morning. But last Halloween, one University of North Carolina student never made it to the festivities; he died from head injuries after darting across two lanes of traffic and into the side of a car.
According to friends, he had been drinking. An autopsy showed a blood alcohol level of 0.04 -- well below the legal level for a driver but high enough that police considered it a factor in his death.
The young man's death points to an issue that is largely ignored here and across the country:
"We've done a very good job of convincing people that it's not okay to drink and drive," says Lauren Marchetti, a spokeswoman for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, "but . . . we haven't done a very good job of telling people not to drink and walk. All the messages stop with encouraging people to get a designated driver."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics suggest the scope of the problem. Last year, nearly one person in eight killed in traffic accidents nationwide was a pedestrian. All told, 5,220 pedestrians died in such crashes, and 31 percent of them were legally intoxicated. At night, when the majority of such accidents occur, 53 percent of pedestrians age 16 and older killed by motor vehicles in 1997 were intoxicated, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Last year, 5 of the 15 pedestrians killed in traffic accidents in the District, 36 of 105 in Maryland, and 43 of 102 in Virginia had been drinking, according to the NHSTA. The vast majority of those 84 impaired victims had blood alcohol levels over 0.10, which is above the statutory limit for drivers in all states.
One jurisdiction that has addressed the intoxicated-pedestrian issue is Baltimore. Pamphlets, posters and advertising have been used in a pilot program called Walk Smart Baltimore to encourage drivers to be alert for impaired pedestrians. Police officers have been trained to help such pedestrians, to drive them home and even give them reflective baseball caps to make them more visible to drivers. And the Department of Public Works has upgraded lighting and added crosswalks in some commercial corridors with a high number of liquor stores, bars and convenience stores.
A full evaluation of Walk Smart Baltimore is not expected until later this year, but Richard Blomberg of Dunlap & Associates, a Connecticut research firm overseeing the project for the NHTSA, says he is encouraged by preliminary indications: "This is a very resistant problem, and we're just starting to nibble away at it."
The typical victim in an impaired-pedestrian fatality, Blomberg and other experts say, is a male between age 20 and 50. Researchers have found that such deaths tend to occur close to home and that the victim often has a history of alcohol abuse.
"Many of the people who become involved in such accidents are very hard-core alcoholics," says Fred Shoken, a Baltimore traffic safety supervisor. "In that case, the major countermeasure is to get them into treatment, which is difficult because the victims can be such a hard audience to reach."
While this can be thought of as an urban phenomenon, it extends to rural areas as well. In the late '80s, after 24 impaired pedestrians had died over a five-year period on one eight-mile stretch of road near a Navajo Indian reservation outside Gallup, N.M., the state erected better lighting. Since the project was completed in 1994, there have been no pedestrian fatalities there (aside from one suicide), according to the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department.
The problem does not seem to be prominent on the radar screens of safety officials in the Washington area, though. "It really hasn't been brought to my attention," says D.C. police Cmdr. Shannon Cockett of the 2nd District, which includes Georgetown. "If we see someone who appears to be impaired, we encourage them to take a cab."
"It's not against the law to walk down the sidewalk drunk," says D.C. police Lt. Russell Kniser. "We don't usually have any cause to intervene unless people are in medical danger, when they're so drunk they pass out in the street and can't be revived."
Queries to safety officials at the University of Maryland, the University of Virginia and a handful of other local schools turned up similar responses. While colleges routinely encourage students to drink responsibly, they tend not to specifically address the dangers of drinking and walking.
Blomberg says that while police have few appropriate laws at their disposal, they still can intervene. "Police officers will come in contact with impaired pedestrians more than anyone else," he says. "If they address the problem in a way that helps people and doesn't make them feel like targets, community policing could be extremely valuable."
Beyond that, "just getting people to the point where they're aware of the dangers of drinking and walking is crucial," Blomberg says.
Marisa Ferguson is a copy editor on The Post's Metro desk.