No, “Drunk Walking” Is Not Causing the Rise in Pedestrian Deaths

A new report from PBS News Hour violates the most basic precepts of good journalism in a pathetic attempt to pin the rise in pedestrian fatalities on people who drink and walk.

Photo: Transportation for America
Photo: Transportation for America

Last week the Detroit Free Press published some stellar reporting about why America’s transportation system is killing more pedestrians: the growing number of bigger, more dangerous vehicles. For a brief moment it seemed like coverage of pedestrian safety might turn a corner and get over the impulse to blame the victim.

It didn’t last. A new report from PBS News Hour violates the most basic precepts of good journalism in a pathetic attempt to pin the rise in pedestrian fatalities on people who drink and walk.

“Pedestrian deaths are up nationwide, fueled by people who walk while drunk,” was the headline from Jenni Bergal at Stateline (which is produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts).

Except that’s not what the evidence says — at all.

Bergal’s whole case rests on the fact that about 2,000 people who were struck and killed while walking last year had a blood alcohol level in excess of the legal limit — for driving — an increase of 300 since 2014.

Set aside the fact that there is no legal BAC limit for pedestrians because the act of walking is inherently harmless. The data actually shows that drunk victims are a smaller share of total pedestrian fatalities today than they were in 2014.

Since 2014, pedestrian fatalities have increased 22 percent, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The stats reported by PBS News Hour work out to a smaller 18 percent increase in the same period, meaning drunk victims are a smaller share of all pedestrian victims today than in 2014.

In other words, the increase in pedestrian fatalities is clearly not “fueled by people who walk while drunk.”

Nevertheless, no one restrained Bergal from reporting this:

In Austin, where a dozen drunken 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 police Detective Pat Oborski. The highway is lined with fast-food restaurants on one side and low-cost motels on the other.

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

Without realizing it, Bergal is describing one of the great threats to pedestrians: Dangerous, high-speed arterial roads without safe crossings. These conditions put people on foot at greatest risk even when they’re stone-cold sober.

Stories like this cause real harm. They give officials in cities like Austin cover not to do anything but blame the victims. They perpetuate the marginalization of people with no choice but to walk on dangerous streets, who are more likely to be poor, black, or brown.

The more press coverage of pedestrians fatalities blames victims, the less pressure there is to rethink the eight-lane speedways and dangerous SUV designs that jeopardize people’s lives.

  • MPS

    Really?? not accepting your view is marginalizing poor, black, or brown people? Really?

  • MPS

    VMT is just one metric of many. Government agencies focus on it because they are LAZY and have very little data. VMT can be estimated, fabricated. It is not a real data point. It is an estimation. Used in Transportation PLANNING all the time. But real world? No, planning.
    VMT estimations between countries also are misleading, because some countries have 90% of the population who don’t even drive. they walk. But we have these kind of stories that compare the apples to oranges and pretend that the VMT metric is equal. Its NOT.

  • MPS

    The pedestrians are to blame. You don’t see ME dead when I walk. You know why? I look both ways, and I don’t step into the path of a vehicle. I also keep looking even if I am in a crosswalk. I don’t take it for granted that they will see me. I am still alive today because I care about my personal safety, and I don’t cede responsibility to a street light to protect me.

  • MPS

    nope

  • jcwconsult

    On a 45 mph 4 lane arterial a pedestrian crossing in dark clothing at night – particularly if not at a crosswalk (where in many states they do NOT have the right of way) – demands extra care on the part of the pedestrian. NHTSA data for many years shows the high rate of such fatalities and they are NOT all the drivers’ fault.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Guy Ross

    Can you show your work, Jim?

    I get really antsy when in the same sentence people report ‘data’ and ‘high percentage’ without delivering said data.

  • jcwconsult

    That is a logical request, Guy Ross. But I am in Germany until late on 7/13 and away from my “library” of references. I will try to Google for one of several NHTSA studies I have read.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Jesse

    Honestly, this video is a great metaphor for the whole comments section on this page.

  • jcwconsult

    2013 NHTSA data on pedestrian fatalities https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812124
    72% in the dark plus 2% each dawn and dusk
    69% at non-intersections
    In winter, 50% from 6 pm to midnight
    In spring, 25% from 9 to midnight and in summer 34% 9 to midnight
    69% male (more risk takers??)
    34% of pedestrians had BAC 0.8 or higher
    In crashes with pedestrian fatalities, 15% of the drivers had BAC of 0.8 or higher
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • SF Guest

    Not necessarily true. While I have never had a collision with a pedestrian as a driver I had to brake abruptly driving at 15-20 mph when I approached a very narrow marked crosswalk with bushes where it was hard to detect pedestrians at the curb.

    A pedestrian who didn’t make eye contact walked into the crosswalk without looking, and was startled realizing I didn’t see her initiate crossing the crosswalk.

  • Ray Tylicki

    Moving trains expcialy light rail trains can be quiet

  • thielges

    I didn’t mean a person hiding in the bushes on the side of the street. I meant a person walking across the street in clear view.

  • Stuart

    > 72% in the dark plus 2% each dawn and dusk

    Your source says absolutely nothing about the color of clothing victims were wearing, so does not at all support your claim about “crossing at night in dark clothing”.

    The fact that you believe that being hit at night is evidence that the blame falls on the pedestrians for being hit, and not on the drivers for failing driving faster than is safe for conditions (in this case, the condition being the obvious reduction in visibility that happens at night), says more about you than it does about pedestrian behavior.

    > 34% of pedestrians had BAC 0.8 or higher

    Calling that “DUI” as you did is, to quote you, “false nonsense”. DUI is a crime committed when you drive a vehicle while under the influence. Walking with a BAC over 0.08 (not 0.8, by the way; walking or driving while unconscious or dead would be quite a feat) is not a crime.

    Trying to conflate legal pedestrian behavior with obviously illegal driver behavior is shameful.

  • Stuart

    None of this is responsive to the point of the article, which is that since the percentage of people killed while intoxicated isn’t rising, it’s clearly not the reason for the recent increase in pedestrian fatalities.

    > NO ONE wants to see pedestrian fatalities

    And yet here you are, as usual, trying frantically to distract from data-driven discussion of the root causes of the rising pedestrian fatality rate.

    Why are you more interested in attacking straw men than in understanding what is (or in this case, is not) behind the increases?

  • jcwconsult

    If you believe pedestrians walking at night, and particularly if legally but dangerously walking with at a BAC of 0.08 or more with their impaired reaction times, have NO responsibility to take more care for their own safety because they are less visible to drivers driving legally within posted limits on main arterials and collectors – then I think your beliefs are total nonsense.

    It is NOT illegal to drive at 43 mph on a main arterial or collector posted at 45 mph after dark, and if pedestrians attempt to cross the road in dark clothing not at a crosswalk and perhaps with a BAC of over 0.08 – then those PEDESTRIANS are largely responsible for their own fatal crashes. Safety for pedestrians demands responsible behavior from BOTH pedestrians and drivers. Pedestrian fatalities are NOT 100% the fault of drivers.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    The article was about DETROIT data, not national data. Why are you trying to say that pedestrian fatalities are 100% the fault of drivers and 0% the fault of pedestrians. That is idiotic nonsense.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Stuart

    Claiming that I ever said that is, indeed, idiotic nonsense on your part.

    Once again, you choose to attack obvious straw men of your own creation instead of actually engaging with what people really say.

    The article was about DETROIT data

    The article was about a PBS story entitled “Pedestrian deaths are up Nationwide, fueled by people who walk while drunk.” It uses national data (and mentions Detroit exactly zero times), as does Angie’s math refuting it.

    Apparently you don’t bother to read past the first sentence of articles before commenting.

  • Stuart

    It is NOT illegal to drive at 43 mph on a main arterial or collector posted at 45 mph after dark

    California law disagrees with you. It can absolutely be illegal:

    No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.

    So if at 43mph on said arterial you do not have sufficient visibility to see, and stop for, a pedestrian crossing the street legally in a crosswalk–regardless of the color of their clothes, or whether they have been drinking, neither of which are conditions of having the right of way for crossing in a crosswalk–then you are in violation of California law.

    Many states (possibly all, I haven’t done an exhaustive audit) have similar language.

    Pedestrian fatalities are NOT 100% the fault of drivers.

    I never said they were. I pointed out specific false claims of fact that you made in your post.

    And rather than acknowledge that and correct yourself, you try to distract with a straw man. As usual.

    Don’t you ever worry that the public record you are constantly building for yourself on this site of obvious intellectual dishonesty and flat-out false statements will reflect badly on your organization?

  • Stuart

    If you are approaching a very narrow marked crosswalk with bushes you should (and are required by law at least in California to) slow down enough that you can tell whether or not there’s a pedestrian there.

    Ideally a crosswalk shouldn’t have bushes blocking visibility, and there’s starting to be more awareness of the need to design crosswalks with better visibility, but it’s your job as a driver to adapt to the conditions of the road.

  • Stuart

    DUI pedestrians

    Every time you say this you make yourself look ridiculous.

    The “D” stands for driving. A pedestrian isn’t driving. Walking down the sidewalk or across a street (assuming that the location/timing of the crossing doesn’t violate any laws) while drunk is not a crime. Pretending otherwise is “utter nonsense”.

  • jcwconsult

    No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, th e traffi c on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.

    If that rule were strictly adhered to everywhere, no one could drive at all at any speed on any roadway. There is always some risk to vehicle occupants, cyclists and pedestrians whenever powered vehicles are moving.

    Under Michigan law, pedestrians must yield the right of way to cars if they are not crossing at a crosswalk.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I didn’t say it was a crime – just that it is a moronic way to risk death. The use of DUI is for common terminology of BAC levels.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Guy Ross

    In Germany, there is physical separation. Without hopping over gates there is no way to cross the tracks. But let’s be honest here, tens of thousands of people are not being killed by trains, drunk or not. Try to stay on topic instead of your ‘look over there’ obfuscation.

  • Guy Ross

    While there I hope you have the chance to get over to Holland (NL) to compare and contrast the differences between a country wholly controlled by the automobile industry (Germany) and one which isn’t (NL). Both have great roads for cars but in one you can have a full life outside of private car ownership and use and the other it is quite limiting.

  • SF Guest

    Stuart, did you not read my speed was 15-20 mph? Or is it you don’t regard that range as slowing down.

  • jcwconsult

    Hi Guy Ross. I have seen Amsterdam several times by walking, bus and canal boat. My current trip started in Amsterdam for two days. I have driven in 27 world countries out of a total of 49 that I have visited. In MANY major European cities, not just in the NL – if you both live inside the city and work inside the city, moving around by walking, biking and transit systems is quite practical. If you live beyond the reach of the city transit systems or practical biking distance, then using a car will usually be the solution.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Stuart

    Since you were able to stop in time, it sounds to me like you slowed down enough to be able to react safely.

    I was responding specifically to the part of your comment that I quoted: your claim that thielges’s comment was “not necessarily true”.

  • Stuart

    Pretending that the only possible options are driving ~top speed in conditions of reduced visibility and never driving anywhere is just reinforcing that your goal is to excuse dangerous driving rather than to have a reasonable discussion about the legal obligations drivers have.

    Arguing that drivers always have a legal right to drive at the speed limit, even if it’s unsafe for conditions, is irresponsible, reprehensible, and clearly incorrect in any state that has a ‘reasonable and prudent’ law on the books.

    Under Michigan law, pedestrians must yield the right of way to cars if they are not crossing at a crosswalk.

    That’s true in California too. I specifically mentioned crosswalks in the comment you are replying to, because you’ve repeatedly claimed or strongly implied that pedestrians have extra obligations (being sober, wearing bright clothes, etc.) even when they are crossing legally, in a crosswalk, with the right of way. Which is simply not the law, no matter how much you might want it to be.

  • jcwconsult

    A very high % of pedestrian fatalities are NOT at crosswalks.

    Assuming no rain, snow, fog, etc. and proper headlights on the car, it is perfectly OK to be driving at night at the speed limit on a major arterial or collector. Pedestrians who are 1) impaired with alcohol or drugs, 2) are wearing dark clothing to reduce the ability of drivers to see them, 3) fail to judge the oncoming vehicle speeds, 4) or have similar situations to increase their risks — are more likely to be in the pedestrian fatality group. BOTH pedestrians and drivers have responsibility for safety and pedestrian fatalities are NOT always the fault of the drivers.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Guy Ross

    I would make the exception, and I don’t feel it is TOO pedantic, that it should read ‘a city’, not ‘the city’ and not only applies to ‘major cities’. I commute by bike and train 100 km each day from my city (150 K pp) to another city (500 K pp) and in a car it would be a nightmare.

  • djw

    Not necessarily true. While I have never had a collision with a pedestrian as a driver I had to brake abruptly driving at 15-20 mph when I approached a very narrow marked crosswalk with bushes where it was hard to detect pedestrians at the curb

    To state the obvious, the proper, safe and lawful thing for drivers approaching such an crosswalk to do is approach it slowly, so they can comfortably stop if necessary. Laws aside, in what universe isn’t this just common sense and basic human decency?

  • jcwconsult

    Hi Guy Ross. That is a long commute and “go for it” if it fits your lifestyle. Some people in the Eastern US corridor have similar commutes.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • SF Guest

    It’s the same universe whereby pedestrians use common sense which includes me as a pedestrian who don’t assume all drivers approach a suspect crosswalk slowly and make eye contact which this pedestrian didn’t do and placed her life in my hands.

  • djw

    You’re talking about what pedestrians should do, I’m talking about what drivers should do. I don’t think a failure to adhere to safe pedestrian best practices for in a single moment deserve a death sentence for it, and I try to drive accordingly, even if it slows my journey down by a few seconds.

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