Once again, alcohol-related stories are all over the media (Drunk driver haunted by night of shame; Joyce to review drink-driving loophole; ‘Humiliated’ barrister to plead guilty to drink-driving; Car death: ‘Any other kid, you’d be in jail’). All of these cases, and most of the alcohol-related cases that are reported in the media, contain stories about people who were drunk and were driving motor vehicles – a catastrophic state of affairs at the best of times.
However, thought should also occasionally be given to those cases where the drivers are not over the alcohol driving limit but where people still die because they’re drunk. I have worked on many road traffic cases where drunk pedestrians strayed into the path of an oncoming vehicle, were hit and killed or seriously injured. The trauma of the event will never leave the sober driver but in many of these cases the ‘victim’ was too drunk to know what literally hit them.
Recent research in Forensic Science International Supplement Series demonstrates what we have all known for some time – that pedestrians belong to the group of road users with the highest mortality rate. Basically, drunk pedestrians are classed as amongst those road users most at risk. Work completed by Slovenian scientists shows that alcohol-positive pedestrians who died in road traffic incidents between 1999 and 2006 (n = 125) were predominantly younger men, who had a higher level of risk of a road accident, greater incidence of injuries and a shorter period of survival following a road accident – 92% of them died in the six hours after a road traffic incident, usually of head trauma [source: Prijon & Ermenc, 2009. Influence of alcohol intoxication of pedestrians on injuries in fatal road accidents. Forensic Science International Supplement Series, 1, pp. 33—34].
In one case I clearly remember, the pedestrian was a woman who was so drunk she ended up in the road in front of an oncoming motor vehicle. My job in that case was to calculate her blood alcohol concentration at the time of the incident. The unfortunate driver had been charged with death by careless driving but he said the pedestrian had just fallen into the road in front of him. His lawyer was sensible enough to ask an alcohol expert (me) how drunk the pedestrian had been at the time of the incident: considerably, was the answer. Enough to have significantly impaired her ability to co-ordinate her limbs (see Categories of “drunk”) – she probably literally stepped into the road in front of the car.
It just goes to show that even if people are responsible enough not to drive themselves home, they’re still a potential hazard. And then there are the non-traffic incidents where people are so drunk they fall into or off things – but that’s a different story.