Mother Jones Rang in 2015 By Blaming Drunk People for Getting Hit By Cars

In a hyperbolic article, the left-wing publication Mother Jones interpreted national pedestrian fatality stats to mean people who have been drinking shouldn't walk anywhere on New Year's Eve. Image: Mother Jones
Here’s how Mother Jones presented U.S. pedestrian fatality data in a New Year’s Eve warning to avoid walking after having some drinks. Graphic: Mother Jones

This was the New Year’s revelry advice from Mother Jones, the left-wing, reader-supported magazine: Whatever you do, don’t walk anywhere after drinking. That’s because, Maddie Oatman writes, it makes you more likely to be struck by a driver.

As the basis for her reporting, Oatman used some well worn stats from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In a recent report, NHTSA noted that about a third of pedestrians killed while walking had blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher at the time. That spurred a victim-blamey, click-baity frenzy in the national media about the dangers of “drunk walking” — as if people on two feet have the same responsibility to remain sober as people operating heavy machinery.

It’s extra disappointing to see a progressive publication like Mother Jones fall into this trap. Telling people not to walk drunk because they might get struck by a car is like telling college women not to drink because they might get raped. It takes a structurally vulnerable class of people — pedestrians — and puts the onus on them to prevent violence at the hands of another group. It is victim blaming, plain and simple.

Walking, on its own, is plainly not dangerous, and neither is walking drunk. What adds an element of risk is traffic — fast-moving traffic in particular. Entirely overlooked in the the NHTSA study and Mother Jones was how road design puts pedestrians — whether they’re healthy and alert and fit, or affected in some way by old age or disability or alcohol — in harm’s way.

Most pedestrian fatalities take place on a single type of road: urban arterials. These are the wide, high-speed streets that funnel traffic through cities. Most of these roads are designed with little to no thought for the needs of people on foot.

When people are violently killed while walking on these streets, blame is frequently placed at the feet of the victims. When children are struck by drunk drivers because they didn’t walk a third of a mile to the closest crosswalk, the pedestrians get blamed. When people have the audacity to walk at night without special light-colored or reflective clothing, pedestrians get blamed. That has a lot to do with the relative powerlessness of people who rely on walking for transportation, as author and activist Ben Ross laid out beautifully in a recent article in Dissent Magazine.

Meanwhile, countries that have achieved major declines in pedestrian fatalities are not blaming the victims. They’re solving the problem by reining in drivers in urban areas. Sweden, the country with the “safest roads … in the world,” according to the Economist, has reduced road fatalities by 80 percent over the last few decades by building roads “with safety prioritized over speed or convenience.”

Unfortunately, in the United States, for our safety institutions and even our progressive media, the “paradigm shift” hasn’t quite sunk in. We’re still pointing the finger at the most harmless and marginalized class of people on our streets.

  • Thank you for writing this. Completely on point. I hope MJ writes a retraction, though I can’t say I’ll re-up my subscription regardless.

  • Alex

    There’s also a subtle message of “you might as well drive drunk” in that article as well. Not too far a leap to see “at least then you’re protected by your car if you get hit” as the takeaway. A grossly perverse message.

  • Rabi

    It’s worth noting that this was actually just half of a victim-blaming double-feature from Mother Jones on the 29th. It’s not just drunk pedestrians that throw themselves in the paths of poor, innocent drivers; texting pedestrians do too.
    http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/12/texting-walking-injuries-deaths

  • Eric

    “Telling people not to walk drunk because they might get struck by a car is like telling college women not to drink because they might get raped.”

    Well, I am a progressive and a feminist, and the MJ article is dumb, and I do not blame people for getting raped, and I think the colleges themselves should be much more active in trying to eliminate and prosecute on-campus rapes–but I am still planning to tell my daughter more or less exactly that. Drinking is pretty dangerous. It’s especially dangerous, and especially for other people, if you’re driving a car, so as a society most of our effort should go to preventing drinking and driving, but every parent of a young woman should be telling her to be very careful with alcohol.

  • Yeah I actually sort of agree about that too. Buuut, I think people are sensitive about it because for decades rape accusations were pretty much dismissed if the victim had been drinking.

  • DrunkEngineer

    The NHTSA methodology greatly overstates the problem. That is because their data does not look at whether alcohol was a factor in the fatal accident. For example, an alcohol-impaired pedestrian who is run over while standing on the sidewalk would be counted under their methodology (even though alcohol had nothing to do with such an accident).

  • David P.

    As DrunkEngineer mentions, the statistics referenced due not give us enough information to know whether impairment was a factor in any given death, e.g. someone who is legally impaired but behaving safely and is hit and killed by someone who is not. But in the cases of people whose impairment leads them to do stupid things (e.g. walk into the street into traffic without looking, or etc.) yes, it really is their fault.

  • Leave it to NHTSA to do a report about pedestrian safety that is a kick in the shins to pedestrians.

  • cecc0011

    … that is unless you believe that a street should be a place that a person could suddenly walk out into (or a child chases a ball, or any other of the millions of chaotic things that happen in urban environments every day) and not die because road designs calm traffic (+ provides quality lighting, etc) to the point where a driver can react in time (or, failing that, speeds are low enough to not kill). I don’t think it’s crazy to expect every street in places where people live, shop, work, or drink to be designed in such a way.

  • David P.

    I do believe that some streets should be like that, but not all of them. I do not think that restricting all forms of motorized traffic everywhere to 25mph or so (above which speed getting hit by a light vehicle becomes fatal pretty quickly) is desirable, never mind practical. But really, the locus of my point is in the responsibility I believe people have for situational awareness. Also, put a bit more colloquially, not doing stupid shit.

  • Bolwerk

    Prigs never appreciate anything positive. How about: if you’re drunk and not driving, thank you. Seriously. Even if you’re a douchey college bro lighting your farts on fire between tequila shots. Maybe especially if you’re a douchey college bro….

    That said, sort of playing devil’s advocate here, why is it surprising in a car-dependent country? By NHTSA standards, anything incidentally related to alcohol counts. Be that as it may, drivers, drunk or sober, will hit people near nightlife spots. Nightlife is a pretty big reason to be a pedestrian on or near a street for people who otherwise never are pedestrians on or near a street. People who don’t use streets much probably aren’t that street smart, and then you throw in drunken loss of coordination and inhibition on top of that. This MJ bit probably exaggerates something that probably should be expected.

  • So for safety purposes when drunk, it’s best to get behind the wheel of a car. Thanks for the info, Mother Jones! Once I finish this fifth of vodka I’m going to go get in my Hummer H2 and drive home.

  • rdm24

    Saying that pedestrians are responsible for their safety is not the same as blaming the victim!

  • John

    Is this really “victim blaming,” or is it more like “potential victim warning?” To me it seems more like unsolicited cautionary advice, like one might expect from their Mother [Jones].

  • Andy Chow

    The reality is that alcohol is a drug. it is a drug that we tried and failed to ban so we are doing the next best thing by regulating it. If we think that it is unsafe to drink and drive, why would it be consider “safe” to drink and walk? Why the same factors that make drink and drive unsafe make drink and walk safe?

    We know for decades that to be safe we should avoid alcohol (including cutting the risk of women getting raped). On the other hand, we consume alcohol for the intoxicating effects (and for some it is addictive). Choosing to drink alcohol is a conscious decision so I think it is fair to be advised of the risks involved, even if such risk is not politically correct in some circles.

    I have seen a lot of young people getting wasted due to alcohol. I don’t think we could or should offer essentially a warranty that even if they get wasted, it is all because of other people’s fault when something bad happens to them. I think alcohol is OK if consumed responsibly, but some people don’t know their limit and that’s why they get wasted.

  • Sean Rea

    It really tells you something about our priorities as a society when even Mother Jones blames the pedestrian over the person in control of a few thousand pounds of plastic and metal.

  • Where is a warranty offered?

    People who are knowingly impaired shouldn’t be putting themselves in those situations? How much hearing must I have before I’m allowed onto our pedestrian pathways?

    Considering the number of years and organizations it took to get to this point on drunk driving, come back when M.A.W.D. has been around for 30+ years and we can talk.

  • They make a strong point here. If you drink, it is better to drive, you’ll be much safer. You’ll be the one doing the killing instead of getting killed.

  • baklazhan

    ‘If we think that it is unsafe to drink and drive, why would it be consider “safe” to drink and walk?’

    If we think that it is unsafe for a twelve year old child to drive, why would it be considered it safe for a twelve year old child to walk?

    Same answer.

  • Andy Chow

    Difference is that 12 year old are not mature and physically ready enough to drive. Even though it is technically legal for 12 year old to walk anywhere, most parents would put some boundaries. Alcohol on the other hand creates a physical impairment. While it is not illegal to walk drunk per se (though other laws like public drunkenness may apply). People under the influence of alcohol may take actions on the streets that could get themselves harmed that otherwise they will not do without alcohol.

  • SF_Abe

    Are pedestrians responsible for not getting hit by cars, or are the drivers responsible for not hitting other people?

  • tbatts666

    Most of the blame can be laid on the system, not the people using it.

    Of course drivers should bear the burden of lives they take (which streetsblog has been continually pointing out they don’t).

    Blaming each other feels good. But it won’t achieve anything. It will keep us shortsighted, and hamper positive change.

    But….I think if we want to achieve change for the better we need to cast the blame game aside for a second and focus on systems.

    Who designed these roads? What systems in place allowed for high speeds in urban settings? How can we modify our current system to come up with a safer one?

    Chuck Marohn at Strongtowns.org does a lot of thinking on this.
    He seems to think we need to overthrow the current system before we can actually achieve real change.

    http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2015/1/5/no-new-roads

  • Jeff

    This is a good point. It would be interesting to compare the nationwide statistic for percentage of pedestrian fatalities involving alcohol to the data specific to cities in which people exist in human form, as pedestrians, as a matter of course in their daily lives.

  • ClaireB

    Is a drunk pedestrian going to kill another drunk pedestrian by
    accident? Even if one makes a mistake while walking? Highly, highly,
    unlikely. The problem isn’t drunk pedestrians. The problems is
    pedestrians forced to be mixed with motor vehicle traffic. Being able to walk to our destinations safely, conveniently, and enjoyable is a basic human right just like drinking clean water and breathing clean air. It doesn’t matter if we’re drunk, have a physical handicap, are 3 or 103. We should be able to walk to our destinations without fearing for our lives. That is not the case in our cities.

  • Eileen

    There’s a much easier and better solution than telling pedestrians to stay home. New Year’s Eve and Halloween: cars are banned. If you want to travel, you go by foot.

  • Gezellig

    http://greatergreater.com/images/201411/tingvall.jpg

    “And if you fall, remember it’s YOUR fault.”

  • Danielle Campbell

    Drinking and driving laws weren’t put into place to protect the DRIVER, they were put into place to protect everyone around them. So, your analogy is inherently flawed. If people were getting drunk and then walking all over each other and we suddenly had a rash of stampeding deaths, then your argument would be relevant, but that isn’t the case, and the reason these people are getting run over more often is simply there are more pedestrians around at those times to be run over, and more drunk and/or hungover drivers out and about.

  • Danielle Campbell

    Suggesting that people wouldn’t get mugged if only they wore a crossbody style purse is victim blaming. You’re placing responsibility for one offenders actions on the person who is actually injured by those actions. Similarly, suggesting that pedestrians are the cause of their getting run over by drivers who, I remind you, have a legal liability to have control over their vehicles at all times, is victim blaming. Not to mention pedestrian’s right of way, which falls under that same assumption of control over the vehicle. If you want to put it in a more practical application, you’re saying that drunk and/or hungover people veering into pedestrians is a-okay, because the pedestrian shouldn’t have been drunk, shouldn’t have been wearing that dark jacket, shouldn’t have been out at that hour of the day, and that the pedestrian was, in essence, asking for it. :b

  • Andy Chow

    When I say drink and walk may not be safe, it is not illegal per se. We are not (yet) a nanny society and that people are allowed to do a lot of things that are not safe to themselves. Consuming alcohol frankly is one of these things. If we are indeed a nanny society it would’ve been banned. So theoretically there shouldn’t be any DUI or WUI.

    If the facts shows that people who drink get killed on the street more often, why do we need to shoot the messenger and try to sugarcoat it to make as if alcohol is not a factor?

    Darkness could be a factor, along with generally being tired at the end of the night, but in most places there shouldn’t be more pedestrians and cars in the area compared to day time.

  • CarsRuleBikesDrool

    Last time I ran over a Pedd, he wuz d-runk 9 yr old with a can of 4Loko fallin outta his little waaaasted hands. So the big question is, what r we doin bout under age drinking, and how can I stop ruinin the finish on my ’02 Honda Civic Si when they fall under my wheeeeeeelz?!?!?

  • cecc0011

    Can you explain which streets where people live/work/play are impractical to limit to 20-25 mph?

  • Bobberooni

    Get a grip… this year, a drunk (and high) college student was killed while lying down in the middle of an unlit road in New Hampshire. He was run over, of course.

    The world is full of plenty of other hazards for drunk pedestrians as well: bridges, ditches, pointy things, etc. Not to mention the inherent risks of being that drunk (and high).

    There have got to be reasonable limits about how far we are going to go to protect drunk people on New Year’s Eve.

  • David P.

    Large (6+ lanes) and high-vehicle-traffic-volume arterials that typically have 40mph limits or so, for one. I don’t recall what street the child in Cobb County, GA was killed on (see the other SB post from yesterday) but that would be one example. Something like Cobb Parkway in that area would be another. I think these are often sort of terrible streets to have housing on, but that’s a reality in many American cities. Western Ave. in Chicago would be another example, though I think its limit isn’t any higher than 40 and might be 35. I am not on it often since it is not a bike-friendly street and there are better choices nearby.

  • rdm24

    By that logic, saying you should look both ways before crossing the street is victim blaming.

  • rdm24

    Don’t both have a role? The pedestrian crossing in a crosswalk, the driver driving at reasonable speeds, both of them paying attention to their surroundings?

  • baklazhan

    There is a pertinent quote, from a court ruling way back in 1855: “A drunken man is as much entitled to a safe street as a sober one, and much more in need of it.”

    It seems that, over time, we’ve become more comfortable with the idea of the public street as a dangerous, pass-at-your-own-risk sort of place. I was thinking as I was writing my comment that, yes, there would be people who’d consider it unsafe for a twelve year old to walk to a friend’s house, and would not see that as a problem– they’d just say that proper parenting would involve shuttling the kid over in an SUV, and if you make a different choice, you’re to blame if your kid gets hit.

  • matt

    “In a recent report, NHTSA noted that about a third of pedestrians killed while walking had blood alcohol content of .08 percent or higher at the time. That spurred a victim-blamey, click-baity frenzy in the national media about the dangers of “drunk walking”

    Why are your links from 2013 and 2011? This is a complete lie. the links came years before this mother jones article..

  • Katja

    Wait but like, the way they write it says that half of those crash deaths “involve alcohol in some way.” So if I’m a pedestrian, sober as a judge, and get hit and killed by a drunk driver, that would “involve alcohol in some way,” even though it’s not me who has consumed.

    WTF, Mother Jones.

  • cecc0011

    I mean, those are exactly the type of places that are the most dangerous for pedestrians because the design encourages going faster than 35. The economic benefits for faster speeds (with resulting long wait times at lights), if any, don’t justify the loss of property value and injury/death risk to pedestrians. Urban arterials like those you describe can be easily calmed (or, converted to a true road in certain cases without property access) and should be the top priority for municipalities nationwide.

  • That would be every street in Texas, where you need a special bill in the legislature to get a speed limit lower than 30 MPH on that specific road with limited boundaries spelled out in the bill. As you can imagine getting a 25 MPH speed limit on a road that gets heavy pedestrian or bicycle traffic is often more work that it’s worth. Depending on how much value you place on human lives of course.

  • Andy Chow

    Pedestrians also has a role and responsibility for their safety. What if someone stumbles onto the street in front of an approaching vehicle and got hit because the vehicle couldn’t respond in time? If you think that pedestrian should never be held accountable, you might say that cars shouldn’t be there, or that car should be driven in 5 mph so that even if getting hit they could survive.

    A 12 year old can be taught not to stumble onto the street. A drunk person would’ve known not to stumble onto the street, but alcohol creates an impairment, the same impairment that made them driving unsafe.

    Drunk person deserves the same legal protection like everyone else, but being drunk is not an excuse if they get hurt due to their impairment.

  • The irony here is the boards across the chasm are much safer than depending on crosswalks to be respected by drivers.

  • David P.

    Re: urban arterials, I’d agree with you – but not surburban ones. I do not think that limits that low make sense for roads like Cobb Parkway in Atlanta or, say, 8 Mile or Telegraph Roads in Detroit.

  • Flakker

    All things being equal (and they aren’t) a drunk pedestrian is more likely to be hit than a sober one. But looked at through that lens, there’s nothing really shocking or important about these statistics- yeah you’ll more likely be hit while walking drunk, so what? Coincidentally, a disproportionate number of drunk driving miles are driven in low density areas where there are no pedestrians to hit. It’s a tired phrase, but correlation does not equal causation.(see also, Bolwerk and Drunk Engineer’s posts below)

  • David

    Sometimes pedestrians getting hit is the pedestrians fault. I recently had to swerve into the opposing lane to avoid hitting a pedestrian who walked out in between 2 parked cars less than 100 feet from where I was. If I was unable to swerve into opposing traffic I may have very likely hit him. Lesson to be learned. Put down the damn phone when crossing the street.

  • EC

    Agreed, of course.

  • Florida Massacre

    Has Mother Jones issued an apology yet?

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