Pedestrian Peril This New Year's Eve

Walking home drunk on New Year's Eve may not be as safe as previously thought.

December 30, 2009, 11:05 AM

Dec. 31, 2009— -- Safe travel this New Year's goes beyond having a designated driver: On top of the usual "Don't drink and drive," ER doctors this year are saying, "Don't drink and walk" -- at least not without a "designated walker."

In the past, you may have flipped a coin with your friends to decide who will stay sober and be the designated driver during the holiday festivities, but chances are you never considered it necessary to designate someone as a sober walker to escort you home after an evening of New Year's drinking.

According to Dr. Thomas Esposito at Loyola University Health System in Maywood, Ill., pedestrian safety is something you may want to consider this year, even if you haven't been hitting the holiday punch.

In his work as chief of the trauma division/surgical care at the Loyola University Chicago Stitch School of Medicine, Esposito sees the "tragic aftermath" of drunken walking after New Year's parties.

"Alcohol impairs your ability to walk and navigate, especially if you're in the dark," Esposito says.

"Throw on top of that [that] the early morning hours of New Year's Day are probably one of the most dangerous times on the road for pedestrians," and Esposito says that having a "chaperone -- someone who is not impaired," to walk home those who've been drinking is a good idea.

Dangers of Walking Under the Influence

In 2008, 4,378 pedestrians were killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. Alcohol consumption, either by the driver or the walker, was involved in nearly half of those pedestrian fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association.

The risk for these pedestrian accidents is especially high on New Year's. According to a 2005 study in the journal Injury Prevention, more pedestrians die on New Year's Day than on any other day of the year.

"We know that accidents cluster over the weekend, are worse at night ... and especially cluster around Christmas and New Year's," says Dr. Albert Lowenfels, professor of surgery and community and preventive medicine at New York Medical College.

Considering the holiday falls on a long weekend this year, this New Year's may present an even higher risk, he says.

And drunk driving isn't the only culprit behind this high level of pedestrian accidents.

According to 2008 statistics from the National Highway Traffic Association, it is the walker who is inebriated in more than a third of pedestrian fatalities.

When alcohol is involved, pedestrians are "less aware of their surroundings and less responsive to dangerous conditions," says Lowenfels.

"I wouldn't want to be walking on a major highway while intoxicated," he adds. "That's where most pedestrian injuries happen. We think of walking as pretty safe, but there are risks," especially when alcohol is involved.

Dr. Joseph Braverman, who directs the Weiler Division of the Montefiore Emergency Department in New York City, notes that while "the greater frequency of alcohol-related accidents this time of year is car-to-car," there are also many cases of "patients injured by motor vehicles while walking, either as a result of their own lack of caution, or if they or the driver had been drinking."

Sober, Safe and on the Sidewalk

To be safe for this Jan. 1, Esposito says, "first and foremost, drink responsibly."

And if you're hosting a party, try to have your guests who are inebriated "stay on the premises for the night," he says, or if they must walk home, have a sober friend go with them.

If you are walking yourself home, whether you've been drinking or not, doctors suggest precautions to maximize your safety.

"Stay on the sidewalk if there is one, and if there isn't, walk facing traffic," says Lowenfels.

Visibility is key as it can be hard for drivers, alcohol-impaired or not, to see someone in dark clothing at night, so "wear bright colored clothing; and if you have a little flashlight too, that's wonderful," Lowenfels says.

Esposito adds that walking in groups can help visibility as well.

It's good to "try to choose a route that has pedestrian-friendly space, such as sidewalks and crosswalks," Braverman says.

But, of course, the best option, he points out, is to have a sober driver take you home or, if possible, "stick to public transportation. That would go a ways toward avoiding these kinds of accidents."

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