Study aims at drunken pedestrians

May 23, 1994|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

A 63-year-old man falls beneath the wheels of a bus on Greenmount Avenue.

A jaywalker steps in front of a four-wheel drive vehicle headed south on Russell Street.

An Edmondson Village resident is run over by a car within two blocks of his home.

The three accidents had much in common: Each took place in Baltimore last year. Each involved alcohol. Each resulted in death.

But none of the drivers involved in those crashes was at fault. All three involved drunken pedestrians who either disobeyed signals or ignored traffic conditions.

Since September 1991, a research team sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been focusing on Baltimore as a test city to understand better the behavior of drunken pedestrians and to recommend solutions.

More than 5,500 pedestrians die in traffic crashes in the United States each year. About one-third of those killed are intoxicated, found to have blood alcohol concentrations of .10 grams per deciliter or greater -- the level commonly used to define drunken driving. An estimated 44 percent of victims had some level of alcohol in their blood, according to the highway safety administration.

In fact, the number of drunken pedestrians who died in traffic accidents -- 1,810 -- was more than twice as great as the number of pedestrians -- 778 -- who were killed by drunken drivers in 1992, the most recent year for which nationwide statistics are available. But while the combination of cars and alcohol has long been acknowledged as lethal, the behavior of drunken pedestrians has rarely been addressed.

It is a problem that is most prevalent in urban areas, where nearly 70 percent of pedestrian deaths take place.

In Baltimore, 16 pedestrians were killed -- nearly a third of them intoxicated -- and 1,464 were injured in traffic accidents in 1992. Elsewhere in Maryland that year, there were 82 pedestrian deaths and at least 1,936 injuries.

State Highway Administration records indicate that 28, or 36 percent, of the 77 pedestrians age 16 or older who died in traffic accidents in Maryland that year, had been drinking.

Last year, 38 of 112 adult pedestrians killed in traffic in Maryland were intoxicated, not counting an additional five who had been drinking but whose blood alcohol level was not high enough to be categorized as drunk.

In Baltimore, early findings of the federal study suggest that destitute, alcoholic men are at the core of the problem. Unemployed and poorly educated, the middle-aged victims are often drinkers who are walking near their homes on weekend evenings.

'Addicted to alcohol'

"The average victim is addicted to alcohol," said Dr. Alfred J. Farina, a research psychologist who is coordinating the study. "You see very high blood alcohol levels that suggest the person is a protracted drinker."

In the three fatal accidents cited, the pedestrians had an average blood alcohol level of .18. In the bus accident, the victim's blood alcohol level was .23. That is more than twice the standard for intoxication.

It is illegal to drive while drunk or under the influence of alcohol, but laws regarding public drunkenness are seldom as aggressively enforced. In Maryland, drunks who pose a danger to themselves or others may be charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 or 60 days in jail.

Researchers with Dunlap and Associates Inc., the Connecticut-based firm that is conducting the Baltimore investigation for the highway safety administration, are examining how alcohol impairs pedestrian judgment. They have interviewed victims and pored over police accident reports and corresponding hospital emergency room records since 1991 as a basis for their analysis.

While the accidents take place under a variety of circumstances, they often involve a driver who "doesn't see a pedestrian in time, or misinterprets the pedestrian's intent," said Richard D. Blomberg, Dunlap's president.

"A driver will see a pedestrian along the road and assume that he is going to act rationally," said Mr. Blomberg, an engineer and human behavior expert. "It's an expectations game, and sometimes those expectations aren't met."

'Dart-out' most common

The most common type of pedestrian accident is the "dart-out," where a pedestrian walks or runs into the path of a car either in the road or turning at an intersection. Other accidents involve pedestrians walking, playing, standing or working in the road.

How does alcohol affect those situations? Researchers believe they are aggravated by an intoxicated pedestrian's inability to think clearly under demanding conditions.

For instance, when a pedestrian walks into a four-lane road and a car brakes to avoid him, there is a chance that another vehicle is approaching in the next lane. That driver's view may be blocked by the first car, which the pedestrian needs to consider to avoid being struck.

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