Drunk Walking As Dangerous as Drunk Driving? Mmm… no.

drunk-walkingYou might be a fan of the Freakonomics books, and for good reason. Authors Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner have made a career out of looking at economic and social issues from a fresh, offbeat and very entertaining perspective. In that vein, Steven Levitt stated at a recent seminar that drunk walking is more dangerous than drunk driving.

His rationale is that, mile for mile traveled, drunk walking might pose more risk than motoring. True, drunks do walk into the path of cars and get killed – about 1,000 times a year. If you measure how many miles those people walked while drunk and compared it to how many miles drunk drivers drove before getting killed, it would indeed seem that walking under the influence is more lethal.

Of course, Levitt knows the reality, and is not downplaying the serious risks of drunk driving. Let’s think things through:

  • A drunk walker poses a risk mostly to him or herself: drunk drivers risk not only their own lives, but their passengers, pedestrians, other drivers and sometimes people indoors but near the road. Levitt acknowledges this.
  • Miles traveled is one measure of risk, but there are others. Some 10,000 people each year die from alcohol-related causes on American roads. The cost to society is immense, much greater than the cost of drunk walking. It’s one thing to determine how dangerous an activity is. It’s another to determine how much society suffers because of it.

Alcohol has always taken a toll on society, and the US has been trying to lessen that toll through various measures, most notoriously the Volstead Act of 1919 which enforced prohibition. But drunk driving proved particularly stubborn for generations, as even casual drinkers didn’t mind getting behind the wheel.

It’s because of the sheer number of fatalities and injuries each year that we have blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limits, ignition interlocks which prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking, and laws which penalize suspected drunk drivers who refuse a breath test.

Perhaps, as Levitt suggests, drunk walking merits attention. But drunk driving is still the greater public menace – no matter how you look at it.