Celebu-Economist: Drunk Driving Safer Than “Drunk Walking”

Did you know it’s safer to drive in the United States than to walk?

Freakonomics author Stephen Levitt says if you're drunk it's better to drive than walk. Photo: Bro Bible

Yep. We’ve built a transportation system that so privileges motorists, is so blind to the needs of those who try to get around any other way, that pedestrians make up 11 percent of trips, but 12 percent of fatalities (traffic engineers, take a bow).

Enter Steven Levitt of Freakonomics. In a recent radio program, the provocateur economist presented his finding that “walking drunk” is eight times more dangerous than driving drunk. Which led him to conclude: “Truly, if you’re faced exactly with two choices, walking drunk or driving drunk, you absolutely should drive drunk.”

Levitt’s statement was obviously intended to shock. Hence the “don’t drink and drive” disclaimer from co-author Stephen Dubner. More shocking than the cavalier sensationalism of Freakonomics, though, are the everyday perils faced by pedestrians, regardless of alcohol intake. Katie at Network blog Where the Sidewalk Starts explains:

We know that in terms of deaths per trip, pedestrians are over-represented when compared to drivers or vehicle passengers. However, even though our Freakonomics friends threw out some assumptions about total miles walked in the US, we don’t have great data on overall exposure to walking dangers (e.g. how do you count all those crashes that happen in parking lots?). Thus, contrary to what Levitt and company suggest, it’s hard to actually know how dangerous walking is on a per-mile basis.

On the other hand, it’s true that walking isn’t always safe — particularly if you’re walking home after a night at the bars. Nighttime walking, especially on weekends, is highly associated with pedestrian fatalities. Of course, this is the case whether you’re stumbling drunk or stone-cold sober (although it’s worth noting that about a third of pedestrian fatalities involve drinking), but I suppose the publicity for your book is better if you focus on perils for tipsy pedestrians …

…which brings us back to Levitt’s argument that you should drive, rather than walk, drunk. It could be true that driving is the “correct” choice if you’re only considering your personal safety. However, as anyone who’s taken Economics 101 could  point out (and has, if you read the comments on the Freakonomics page), there are significant external costs associated with both drunk driving and driving in general. Factor those in, and walking becomes much more appealing from an economic standpoint — but not safer for the pedestrian. Advocates, planners, and traffic engineers: that’s your job.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Charleston Moves goes into “crisis mode” over SCDOT’s decision to bar cyclists from an important bridge. Bike Lane Living explains the simple beauty of Virginia Beach’s low-tech bike sharing program. And Riding in Riverside makes the case for California High Speed Rail.