Walking home after having too many drinks may be as dangerous as driving while drunk. Alcohol was present in the bodies of more than one-third of pedestrians killed in car accidents in 2011, many of whom had blood alcohol levels above the legal driving limit, according to data released Monday by the Department of Transportation.
The department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a report on the data as it kicked off an initiative to fight the rising number of pedestrian deaths. The total number of fatalities in traffic crashes has decreased since 2002, but the percentage of pedestrian fatalities has grown by 3 percent in that time. The number of pedestrian fatalities also increased by 3 percent, from 4,302 in 2010 to 4,432 in 2011, according to the data.
"Whether you live in a city or a small town, and whether you drive a car, take the bus or ride a train, at some point in the day, everyone is a pedestrian," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, in a statement. "We all have a reason to support pedestrian safety, and now, everyone has new tools to help make a difference."
In 2011, the 4,432 pedestrians who were killed in traffic crashes averaged to about one death every two hours, the report says. And alcohol involvement was reported – for the driver or the pedestrian – in nearly half of the crashes that resulted in pedestrian fatalities.
More than 1,500 pedestrians, or 35 percent of those killed, had blood alcohol content levels of .08 or higher, which is the legal limit for driving. By comparison, 13 percent of the drivers involved in crashes that killed a pedestrian had blood alcohol content levels above the legal driving limit.
Although the total percentage of pedestrians killed who had alcohol present in their bodies has stayed relatively flat over the last decade, the percent of middle-aged and older pedestrians with alcohol in their systems has increased. In 2002, 50 percent of pedestrians killed between 45 and 54 had some level of alcohol present in their systems. By 2011 that number rose to 54 percent. For those between 55 and 64, the numbers rose from 35 percent in 2002 to 39 percent in 2011.
Meanwhile, the number of younger Americans, between 16 and 20 years old, who had alcohol in their systems and were killed in traffic crashes has decreased from 38 percent in 2002 to 30 percent in 2011.
Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, told The Associated Press that anti-drunk driving campaigns may convince more people to walk home after drinking, when alcohol impairment may lead them to make bad decisions.
"What [the data] says to us is that nationally we've done a good job of educating people about the dangers of drunk driving, but we haven't done such a good job of reminding them that other drunk behavior, including walking, can be just as dangerous," Adkins told the AP.
Adkins said that when pedestrians are under the influence of alcohol, they may make bad decisions such as trying to cross a road in the wrong place, crossing it against the light, or "trying to beat a bus that's coming," he said.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is giving states the opportunity to apply for a total of $2 million in grants to use for pedestrian safety education and enforcement programs in 22 cities that have higher-than-average pedestrian death rates.
"To help stop the recent increase in deaths and injuries, we need everyone to play a role in pedestrian safety," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, in a statement. "Working with partners on the federal, state, local and individual level, we hope to turn this concerning trend around."