Australian study recommends criminalizing drinking and walking

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Video screen capture Don’t walk home, George Bailey

We have talked often about “the criminalization of walking” about blaming the walking person when he or she gets hit by a car for looking at their phones or wearing headphones or being dressed in black. Now in Australia they are taking it to a new level. A new study led by Biswadev Mitra of The Alfred Hospital and Monash University has concluded that a significant proportion of pedestrians hit by cars were drunk. The Age writes it up, saying of Mitra: "A leading trauma doctor has called for new laws after a study found hundreds of drunk cyclists and pedestrians were seriously injured in collisions with cars and motorbikes." You can see where this is going already in the first paragraph: cars do not hit cyclists and pedestrians; instead, cyclists and pedestrians collide with cars.

The study notes that out of 1323 people taken to hospital, alcohol was detected in 18.7 percent of the total. Among pedestrians, 24.7 percent were intoxicated, defined as having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of over 0.05 g/100 mL.; among cyclists tested, 7.3 percent were intoxicated. “Intoxicated patients were significantly younger, and a higher proportion were males and more likely to present after hours and on public holidays”.

Now to be clear, this post is in no way justifying or approving of walking or cycling drunk. Some of the blood alcohol levels in people tested are extremely high. The Pedestrian Council of Australia notes that "Incredibly, over 20% of pedestrians who are killed on our roads have a BAC exceeding .15%." and claims that they are all out there crawling down the middle of the pavement. Watching their video might drive you to drink.

That’s not what this study is about. There is no inference drawn that the pedestrians actually caused the crashes, and on their own a wobbly pedestrian is not going to do a lot of damage if they walk into something like they would if they were driving. But that is not stopping anyone from drawing the logical conclusion that the pedestrians should be regulated and tested for alcohol. Professor Mitra tells the Age, my emphasis:

"I think all road users should have similar laws applied to them," he said. "This study highlights that pedestrians contribute to a large burden (of road trauma) so even if you’re walking drunk on the road, you should be breath tested and told to get off the road."

The doctor also called for mandatory blood alcohol testing for all road accident victims in emergency departments because it was possible some drivers were being charged with offences such as culpable driving when a drunk pedestrian or cyclist caused the accident. At the moment, only drivers are tested.

Alcohol intoxication in non-motorised road trauma/Screen capture

The paywalled study (6 buck rental here) goes out of its way to stress the scale of the problem, noting in the limitations section that they might even be underestimating it: “It might be hypothesized that a substantially larger number of intoxicated road users contribute to road traffic crashes, for example cars swerving or braking to avoid intoxicated pedestrians and pedal cyclists.”

Then the study concludes:

Intoxication is common in non-motorized road users involved in road traffic crashes… The true burden of intoxication in non-motorized road users remains unknown because of the lack of routine testing. Preventative measures that specifically target non-motorized road users and regulate unsafe behaviour of intoxicated individuals should be reconsidered to improve safety of all road users.

There are so many things wrong with this picture. The study does not say whether the drunk pedestrian was crossing a street with the right of way or whether they were crawling down the middle of the road. The study does not account for the fact that they might actually be walking because they know they should not be driving, and therefore it should be expected that there are going to be drunk people around.

Alcohol intoxication in non-motorised road trauma/Screen capture

The study notes that “A higher proportion of alcohol-related fatalities are known to occur in streets with poor lighting and in areas with high numbers of retail outlets, bars and liquor stores” but does not tell us how fast drivers are going in such areas. The study also notes that the bulk of these happened after hours, when other studies in Australia and the USA show that between 14.7 and 49 percent of people have been drinking, so it should be no surprise at the proportion of drinkers who get hit is that high- that happens to be the general population after hours in the bar districts. However it doesn’t make them car magnets.

It all seems like yet another way to ensure that drivers have every opportunity to hit people with impunity under the law; if the pedestrian had a drink, well, there you go. It might even actually encourage drunk driving; if you are going to get nailed however you get home, you might as well do it more quickly and comfortably.

It is all about attitude, about figuring out yet another way to somehow shift the responsibility for what happens in the roads from the driver to the victim, who is supposed to now be dressed in hi-viz, carrying a flashlight, have perfect hearing, and now, you can’t even have a drink with dinner.

When I tweeted about this, a follower noted that it is already happening in America; he lives in Salt Lake City and tweeted back:

I was hit by an inattentive driver in August. The police had me taken by ambulance to the hospital for a full tox screening… I’m guessing their justification was that only drunk and/or crazy people walk on their sidewalks.

It is all self-reinforcing; scare the pedestrians off the road until there are so few of them that there has to be something wrong with anybody who is left.