This is the time of the holiday season when New Year's partiers are inundated with warnings about the risks of drinking and driving.
Little is ever heard, though, about the risks of drinking and walking, which can be just as dangerous, said trauma surgeon Dr. Thomas Esposito at Loyola University Health System in Maywood.
"Alcohol impairs your physical ability to walk and to drive," Esposito said. "It impairs your judgment, reflexes and coordination. It's nothing more than a socially acceptable, over-the-counter stimulant/depressant."
A trauma surgeon for more than 20 years, Esposito has witnessed the tragic aftermath of drunken walking professionally and personally. Several years ago, Esposito's cousin of his opted to walk instead of driving home from a party where he had been drinking.
"A driver, who I don't believe was intoxicated, did not see him and hit him and he was killed," said Esposito, who is also professor of surgery and chief of the division of trauma, surgical critical care and burns in the department of surgery, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. "They found him on the side of the road on New Year's Day."
In 2005, the journal Injury Prevention reported that New Year's Day is more deadly for pedestrians than any other day of the year. From 1986 to 2002, 410 pedestrians were killed on New Year's Day. Fifty-eight percent of those killed had high blood alcohol concentrations.
Alcohol also plays a significant role in the deaths of pedestrians throughout the year, according to information from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In 2007, their research found that "37 percent of fatally injured pedestrians 16 and older had blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent." Of those killed at night, 54 percent had high blood alcohol levels.
During the period from July 2008 to June 2009, of the 86 patients ages 16 and older who were treated at Loyola after being struck by cars, 18 were found to have some level of alcohol in their system. Of that number, 14 had blood alcohol concentrations at or above 0.08 percent, the legal definition for impaired driving in Illinois.
"If they had been driving and were stopped by police, they would have been arrested for driving under the influence," Esposito said.
Esposito added that the number doesn't include the people who suffer injuries in their homes from unintentional causes and violence after drinking.
"It's not just walking outside. All the time we see people who have been drinking that have fallen down the stairs or tripped at home and injured themselves. Others have decided to pick a fight using a knife or with someone holding a gun," Esposito said.
If you drink and plan to walk on New Year's Eve or any other day of the year, you have to take special care, Esposito said. Don't wear dark clothing at night that can make it difficult for drivers to see you. Walk solely on the sidewalks and cross at designated crossings. Also, it's a good idea to walk in a group, which is easier for drivers to spot, and try to walk with at least one person who has not been drinking, a designated chaperone or escort.
Drivers need to take extra care when in locations where people drink, such as areas with large numbers of bars, since intoxicated pedestrians have slower reflexes and can be unpredictable, Esposito said. People throwing parties in which alcohol is consumed have an equal obligation to watch over their guests who are walking home as they do with the ones who may be driving.
"You have to be able to assess someone's perceived ability to safely get from one place to the other," Esposito said. "If their mode of transportation is a car, you do things to prevent them from driving. If that mode of transportation is their legs, then you either drive them or make them stay at home."
Even if a guest who is walking and who has been drinking is staying on the premises, you should be aware that they can trip and fall down the stairs, Esposito said.
"So you don't want to send them up to the second-story bedroom," Esposito said.
Unfortunately, Esposito said his cousin took none of those precautions. He was wearing dark clothing, was alone and walking in the street when he was hit.
"His death has had a devastating effect on the family, especially on his parents," Esposito said. "They required a lot of professional, psychological support and they really have never been the same, especially around the holidays."
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