Drunk Walking Behind Rise in Pedestrian Deaths

By: Bridget Clerkin July 20, 2018
Drunk pedestrians are dying at an alarming rate in the U.S.
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Driving while intoxicated may be on the rise, but it’s not the only form of transportation dealing with an inebriation issue.

Drunken walking has become a growing problem on sidewalks across the U.S., responsible not only for more roadway accidents in general but also more deadly incidents on the streets.

The trend puts pedestrians in a more precarious place than ever, as it mirrors a spike in distracted walking accidents. (Although some studies have shown that distraction is just as dangerous as alcohol behind the wheel.)

Indeed, the twin dragons have led to a jump in pedestrian deaths overall, with 2016 marking the deadliest year for walkers since 1990, according to a recently released report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

But despite the increasing threat on two feet, most organizations have focused on the problems behind four wheels, including drunk driving, distracted driving, and driving while high—and very little has been done on a national scale to try to get drunk walkers to have a seat.

(Don’t) Walk This Way

There were 5,987 total pedestrian deaths in 2016, according to the NHTSA. The figure marks a 9% increase from 2015 and a 27% increase from 2007.

All told, 16% of roadway fatalities were pedestrians in 2016, compared to 11% the previous year. One pedestrian died every 1.5 hours, according to the NHTSA report.

All told, 16% of roadway fatalities were pedestrians in 2016, compared to 11% in 2015.

And while bad behavior behind the wheel is certainly a factor, in many cases, it’s the walkers themselves who are driving the number up.

Distracted walking is on the rise, responsible for an estimated 11,100 injuries—both on and off the road—between 2000 and 2011, the National Safety Council found.

And the Governors Highway Safety Association also reported a collective 16.4% increase in pedestrian fatalities across the seven states that have legalized marijuana in the first half of 2017. The rest of the union—where the herb is still legally off-limits—saw a 5.8% drop in walker deaths over that time.

Still, alcohol has proved an even more dangerous inebriant on the sidewalk.

Drinking was involved in 48% of all fatal incidents involving a pedestrian in 2016, according to the NHTSA report. Of those accidents, 33% took place while a pedestrian had at least some alcohol in their bloodstream, and the driver had none.

(Just 13% of incidents occurred when a driver was legally drunk. Of those cases, 7% happened when the driver was inebriated and the pedestrian was completely alcohol-free.)

But while anti-drunk driving campaigns have been running for years, experts are only now considering how to deal with the problem of drinking and walking.

A Sobering Moment

Drunk drivers create dangerous situations when they pilot a 4,000 lb. vehicle under the influence, swerving or speeding through traffic. But drunk walkers aren’t only as unpredictable; they’re also much harder to see.

Nearly 4,500 pedestrian fatalities occurred while it was dark out in 2016, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

The group recommended better streetlamps and headlights to help pedestrians survive a late-night stroll. But even when visibility conditions can’t be better, walking is increasingly a deadly pursuit.

To help solve the problem, engineers are looking for answers from the roadway itself.

In Florida, developers had for years been told to build roads for maximum vehicle capacity, which led to wider streets fine-tuned to let traffic flow.

But when they received the directive recently to instead prioritize pedestrian safety, things began looking different.

The standard lane width was slashed by the state, going from 12 feet to 11 or 10 feet in some urban areas. The idea stems from a 2016 study that showed narrower lanes were less deadly, as they encouraged drivers to proceed more slowly.

“Flip-flop” parking was also incorporated, switching up which side of the street drivers can park on from block to block. The constant change helps keep drivers alert—and aware of those they’re sharing the road with—and showed some positive results when tested in Georgia.

And the idea of “terminated vistas” was also floated in Florida to help keep more pedestrians alive. Through the method, large structures are placed at the end of long roads, made big enough to be visible to the driver from some distance. The peripheral visions play a mental trick, signaling for drivers to move more slowly.

Still, when it comes to decreasing the number of alcohol-related pedestrian deaths, there’s a long road ahead.

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