The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thousands of inebriated pedestrians die each year in traffic accidents

Pedestrian deaths jumped 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, even as other U.S. traffic deaths dropped. (iStock)

It’s 11 p.m. on a Saturday on U Street in Washington, and music is blaring from the glittery bars and clubs. Many of the partyers will stick around till the bars close at 3 a.m., then pour out onto the sidewalks — and sometimes into the streets.

“I’ve seen drunk people wandering into the street around 2 or 3 in the morning like zombies,” said Austin Loan, a bouncer checking IDs at Hawthorne, a restaurant with five bar areas and DJs on the weekends. “When you get drunk, you think you can rule the world. You may not be paying attention to anything else.”

That can have deadly consequences.

Whether they’re emptying out of bars, going home from football watch parties or trying to get across the highway, drunk walkers are dying on the roads in alarming numbers nationwide.

A third of pedestrians killed in crashes in 2016 were over the legal alcohol limit for drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s nearly 2,000 people — up more than 300 since 2014.

“Those numbers are pretty shocking,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. “We think this is a big problem.”

Being drunk can affect your judgment and reaction time and result in poor decision-making and risky behavior, such as crossing an intersection against the light or cutting across a road midblock, safety experts say. You may not even be thinking about whether drivers can see you.

And while there are lots of programs designed to reduce drunken driving and improve pedestrian safety, there’s little out there aimed at impaired walkers.

“We’ve done a good job of educating people about drunken driving and the dangers,” Adkins said. “But we haven’t reminded people that if you’re too hammered to get behind the wheel, you may be too hammered to walk home in the dark.”

Drunk walkers

Pedestrian deaths jumped 27 percent from 2007 to 2016, even as other U.S. traffic deaths dropped.

Distracted walking and alcohol consumption are contributing to the problem, federal data shows.

And when alcohol factors into a pedestrian death, it’s more often the walker than the driver who is drunk.

“Most people don’t realize how big a problem it is to be walking when you’re impaired,” said Jessica Cicchino, a vice president at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research group funded by insurers. “You’re probably not going to be putting anyone else at risk, but you could be hurting yourself.”

Drivers often don’t see drunk pedestrians until it’s too late, Cicchino said, especially at night, when most deaths occur. The victims, typically men ages 21 to 59, are not crossing at an intersection, research shows.

“If your reflexes are impaired, you might be stumbling into the road and not able to act as quickly,” Cicchino said.

In Austin, where a dozen drunk walkers died in 2016 and seven died in 2017, many crashes were on a stretch of Interstate 35, an eight-lane, high-speed highway divided by a concrete barrier, said Pat Oborski, a police detective. The highway is lined with fast-food restaurants on one side and low-cost motels on the other.

Drunk pedestrians cross the highway, going back and forth between the motels and restaurants on frontage roads, Oborski says. While there’s a bridge over the highway about a quarter-mile away, some people figure it’s easier to run across than to walk to the bridge.

Austin’s pedestrian safety coordinator, Joel Meyer, said officials are aware of the problem and are working to make pedestrians more visible, such as by providing safer crossings and improving street lighting.

In Delaware, 77 impaired walkers have died in crashes in the past five years, accounting for about half of all pedestrian traffic deaths.

“We know it’s a problem,” said Delaware Office of Highway Safety spokesman Mitch Topal. “People are having a good time at their hotel or their rental. And there are a lot of bars and restaurants. People are going from one place to another.”

Officials have launched a media campaign to alert the public about the problem, Topal said. They’ve also sent out teams to talk to pedestrians at beaches and hand out reflective wristbands.

Preventing deaths

But little has been done nationwide to address deaths of drunk pedestrians, according to an IIHS study. There aren’t many educational campaigns alerting people about the risk of alcohol impairment when walking or bicycling, the study found, and more research is needed to figure out how to prevent such deaths.

Among the study’s recommendations: lowering speed limits, improving roadway lighting and marketing ride-hailing services to pedestrians and bicyclists in addition to drivers who have had too much to drink.

Safety experts say states also need to broaden their campaigns against drunken driving to encourage pedestrians and bicyclists to opt for alternatives after heavy drinking.

Some pedestrian advocates caution that officials need to be careful not to send out a message that blames the victims, who sometimes have tried to do the right thing by not getting behind the wheel when they’ve had too much to drink.

Instead, the priority should be on designing safer roadways, which will influence drivers’ behavior and curb speeds where people are walking, said Brendan Kearney, a spokesman for WalkBoston.

Adkins said that while drivers and pedestrians have a shared responsibility to minimize risks, roads should be re-engineered to include pedestrian medians, barriers and bridges to create a safe system for pedestrians and drivers.

“We want to help everyone get home safely,” he said. “Humans are always going to make an error. It shouldn’t cost them their life.”

Bergal is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

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