Last month, Spain’s Directorate General of Traffic (DGT) proposed new laws that would allow police officers to conduct on-the-spot alcohol and drug tests on pedestrians involved in a traffic crash. The agency, which is in charge of Spain’s traffic and transportation, says it’s an effort to deal with a widespread safety issue. Critics in the Spanish government say it would infringe on citizens’ personal privacy and freedom. Pedestrian advocates see it as yet another piece of misguided safety legislation that misses the forest for the trees.
According to a report by the Guardian, the proposed law would define pedestrians as “users of the road” and treat them as equals to drivers, part of a broader effort to “foster better relations and coexistence between pedestrians, cyclists, motorists and vehicles.”
DGT Director General María Seguí Gómez defended the proposal, pointing to a stat that, “of the 370 pedestrians killed in 2014, more than half had alcohol or drugs in their blood.”
The United States has similar statistics about alcohol and pedestrian death. At least one U.S. town has also attempted to pass a ban on drunk walking in recent history. Bethel, Alaska, population 6,100, tried to pass such a law in 2013 (though theirs was rooted in concern over public decency).
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about a third of the 4,657 pedestrians killed by drivers in 2012 had blood alcohol levels higher than the legal driving limit.
A 2011 report in the Journal of Trauma found that pedestrians under the influence of alcohol were less likely to use crosswalks and more likely to cross against the light. In addition, alcohol use was connected to more severe injuries with longer hospital stays when they were hit.
Scott Bricker, executive director of America Walks, a national pedestrian advocacy organization says, of course alcohol can lead to problems for pedestrians. “When people are inebriated it’s more likely they’ll be distracted from safely navigating busy roadways. If you’re trying to cross a busy five-lane arterial to get from the bar district to a residential area, that can be a deadly challenge on any day. And for sure if your senses are compromised in any way when you’re trying to cross, the chances could be higher that you’re going to get killed by a speeding automobile.”
But, he says, it isn’t the drunk walking that’s killing people, per se. “People have been walking for a few million years. And probably for a bunch of that time people have been walking inebriated at some level. The question is really how dangerous is drunk walking in cities with lots of automobiles, traffic, people traveling at different speeds?”
Bricker likens Spain’s proposed legislation to attempts to ban texting and walking in the U.S. In Fort Lee, New Jersey, police can issue you an $85 citation for texting and walking if they deem it dangerous. Similar legislation has been proposed in California, Arkansas, New York and Nevada.
A 2013 study published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention found that the number of pedestrians injured while using cellphones increased from 559 in 2004 to 1,506 in 2010.
The question ultimately is whether or not governments should try to legislate safe pedestrian behavior the same way they already legislate drivers and, to a smaller extent, bicyclists.
“We do already legislate people’s behavior, requiring them to walk in specific, and often more dangerous locations: crosswalks,” says Bricker. “We should not further regulate people’s behavior when [they’re] not operating vehicles.”
He continues, “In fact we should give back rights that were taken away in the early 20th century when people were allowed to do what they already do, assess their environment and make smart choices. All roadway users must use due care, and have some level of responsibility to act with it, [but] we should prioritize people, not cars, in communities and the ‘public way.’”
Slowing down drivers would go a long way toward cutting down on pedestrian deaths and shifting the onus of responsibility onto drivers, whether or not the person walking has had a few too many, is texting or just didn’t look carefully before stepping into the road.
Bricker points to the U.K.’s “20 Is Plenty for Us” campaign, which is pushing to reduce speed limits to 20 mph in cities across the country. When hit by a car going 20 mph, a person has close to a 90 percent survival rate. Last year, New York City dropped its default speed limit to 25 mph from 30 mph.
Traffic-calming measures such as narrowing the road with protected bike lanes and other installations and adding speed bumps, help slow down cars without changing posted speed limits.
“My feeling is if you’re going to go out for the night and have a couple of drinks, you definitely should not be driving a car and probably shouldn’t be riding your bike. So walking is probably one of your best options in that scenario,” says Bricker. “You need to be able to live your daily life and walk around the city and have those things be completely compatible with staying safe.”
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.