Image: Times Square
Hiroko Masuike  /  Getty Images file
Times Square revelers gathered in New York City on New Year's Eve 2008. They may have been on foot, but traffic experts say that's no guarantee of safety.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 12/31/2009 12:58:27 PM ET 2009-12-31T17:58:27

Most New Year's party-goers know better than to drive drunk as tipsy celebrations loom. What they likely don't know, traffic experts say, is that walking drunk after tying one on is dangerous, too.

Jan. 1 is a deadly day for pedestrians in the United States, consistently averaging the highest number of walkers killed in motor vehicle crashes and a greater proportion of victims who are legally intoxicated.

Between 2004 and 2008, 107 pedestrians were killed in Jan. 1 crashes, said Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. That’s in addition to the 410 pedestrians killed in New Year’s Day accidents between 1986 and 2002, according to the agency’s 2005 landmark report on motor vehicle crash deaths.

“Year after year, we find that it’s true,” Fleming said.

Nearly 60 percent of the fatally injured pedestrians in the report published in the journal Injury Prevention were legally drunk, posting blood alcohol levels of .08 percent or higher.

Alcohol impairment is likely what accounts for Jan. 1 posting more pedestrian crash deaths than any other day, the report concludes. Halloween, another booze-soaked holiday, at least for adults, comes in a close second. But emergency room workers say the risk for intoxicated pedestrians goes beyond grim encounters with cars.

“The drunk walkers turn everyday objects into deadly weapons,” said Dr. Ryan A. Stanton, a Lexington, Ky., emergency room physician who has treated several badly injured pedestrians on past New Year’s Days.

“They trip over a crack in the sidewalk, they hit their heads on curbs and light poles,” said Stanton, who is ER medical director at the University of Kentucky Good Samaritan Hospital.

The data were extracted from Fatality Analysis Reporting System, or FARS, kept by the U.S. Department of Transportation. For comparison, more than 37,000 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2008, including 4,378 pedestrians.

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On average, 24 pedestrians were killed on Jan. 1 between 1986 and 2002. Nearly half of the New Year’s pedestrians were killed between midnight and dawn, a period of light traffic and low numbers of accidents on any other day, Fleming said.

That’s more than twice the toll of the 11 pedestrians killed on the day with the fewest average deaths, March 12, the report said.

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Since then, the numbers appear to be nudging downward, with an average of 21 people killed on Jan. 1 between 2004 and 2008.

Most drunk walkers are trying to do the right thing by parking their cars, said Dr. Thomas J. Esposito, a trauma surgeon at the Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill. But they forget just how strongly alcohol can affect them.

“It not only impairs your coordination and ability to walk, it impairs your judgment,” he said.

That lack of judgment may be why pedestrians are most often at fault when they're involved in deadly crashes, according to a 2002 study of deaths in Baltimore, Md., and Washington, D.C. They were almost always responsible for crashes in which a walker darts out in front of a car in the middle of a street or tries to dash across an intersection, the IIHS reported.

Drunk walking deadlier than drunk driving?
Drunk walking may actually be deadlier than drunk driving throughout the year, not just on New Year’s Day, at least according to a contrarian analysis by numbers gurus Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner in their recent book, “SuperFreakonomics.”

By their math, on a per-mile basis, a drunk walker is eight times more likely to get killed than a drunk driver, and walking drunk leads to five times as many deaths per mile as driving drunk.

But they also acknowledge what trauma experts say should be obvious to everyone welcoming the new year: Take a cab, or don't drink so much.

“If you’re thinking you’re doing a good thing by walking instead of driving, think again,” said Esposito. “They key is to not drink to the level of being impaired.”

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