Progress is slow on alcohol impairment among pedestrians, bicyclists

April 12, 2017

More than one-third of pedestrians and one-fifth of bicyclists killed in crashes in 2014 were impaired by alcohol, but scant attention has been paid to the problem. This omission contrasts starkly with the many successful policies that have reduced impaired driving, a new Institute study notes.

The study looked at fatalities of passenger vehicle drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists 16 and older from 1982 to 2014. Using a federal database, IIHS researchers looked at the characteristics of those crashes and trends over time. They found that the percentage of fatally injured pedestrians and bicyclists 16 and older who were impaired has fallen over the decades, but not as dramatically as the percentage of impaired drivers.

Most of the decline among fatally injured pedestrians was in the 1980s and early 1990s, while among bicyclists the proportion has fluctuated. An earlier IIHS study that looked at pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities from 1992 to 2011 found that the proportion impaired by alcohol barely changed in those years.

Previous research has shown that crashes involving pedestrians or bicyclists are more likely to result in death or serious injury when the pedestrians or bicyclists have been drinking. Alcohol impairment contributes to poor decision-making, which can lead to dangerous pedestrian behavior — for example, crossing a street at a dangerous time or location. Alcohol also degrades psychomotor skills, which are important for riding a bike.

The percentage of fatally injured pedestrians with blood alcohol concentrations of 0.08 percent or higher fell from 45 percent in 1982 to 35 percent in 2014. The percentage for bicyclists fell from 28 percent to 21 percent. In contrast, the percentage for passenger vehicle drivers declined from 51 percent to 32 percent.

The largest decrease in alcohol impairment among walkers and cyclists was for people ages 16-20. Alcohol impairment among fatally injured pedestrians in that group fell from 41 percent in 1982-86 to 25 percent in 2010-14. Among fatally injured bicyclists of that age, it fell from 18 percent to 9 percent.

Much of the decline for younger people is likely due to changes in state laws that raised the legal drinking age to 21. In the past, many states had lower drinking ages, but since 1988 the drinking age has been 21 in all states and the District of Columbia.

In contrast, most other policies that have reduced impaired driving are unlikely to reduce alcohol use by pedestrians and bicyclists. In fact, they could have the opposite effect.

"Education and enforcement campaigns aimed at reducing impaired driving may give people the erroneous impression that walking or riding a bike is a safe alternative," says IIHS Senior Research Scientist Angela Eichelberger, the study’s lead author. "The public needs to be better informed about the dangers of alcohol impairment for anybody on the road."

Enforcing bans against serving alcohol to obviously impaired customers in restaurants and bars could also help, as could the recent proliferation of ride-sharing services, Eichelberger and her co-authors note.

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