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What's the Safest Way to Get Home When You're Sloshed?

Studies have found that driving, walking, cycling, and using public transportation can be dangerous when you're drunk. So what the hell are you supposed to do?

by Arielle Pardes
Feb 26 2015, 7:35pm

Photo by Flickr user YuMaNuMa

Last month, Spain's Directorate General of Traffic proposed a plan to breathalyze pedestrians and issue fines for walking while drunk. The idea was to reclassify the unvehicled as "users of the road," putting them in the same category as motorists, bicyclists, and people driving Vespas (this is Spain, after all). The plan was attacked for being autocratic and was ultimately shot down. But when Spain's director of transportation María Seguí Gómez defended the proposal, she claimed, according to the Guardian, that "of the 370 pedestrians killed in 2014, more than half had alcohol or drugs in their blood."

It's not clear where she got that statistic from, but if walking while drunk is too dangerous, how the hell are you supposed to get home? We decided to evaluate all the possible methods of transportation you could take when heading home for your last call to see which was statistically the safest.

Photo by Flickr user Tinou Bao

DRIVING

This is obviously a no-no. Drunk driving accounts for one third of all traffic fatalities in the US, and while some drugs can be said to be reasonably safe to drive on, operating a vehicle when you're not in full control of yourself is inviting disaster. A study published last year that looked at more than 570,000 fatal collisions in the past two decades found that drivers with a BAC of 0.01—practically sober—were still 46 percent more likely to be found responsible for a car accident than sober drivers. The conclusion? "We find no safe combination of drinking and driving, no point at which it is harmless to consume alcohol and get behind the wheel of a car." So let's just rule this one out right away. While we're at it, let's throw some other vehicles in there too—motorcycles, planes, helicopters, Vespas...

Photo by Flickr user Monik Markus

WALKING

You'd think this would be a reasonably safe alternative to driving yourself home after a night of tossing them back. But as the Spanish debate over breathalyzing pedestrians brings to light, walking home drunk presents its own set of risks. A study from 2011 found that pedestrians who had been drinking were about twice as likely to ignore crosswalk signals, which made them more likely to get hit by oncoming traffic. When they did, their injuries were more severe and required longer hospital stays than injuries from sober pedestrians who had been hit by cars—likely because alcohol slows your reaction time, making it harder to jump out of the way of a car.

In about 10 percent of pedestrian-vehicle collisions, the pedestrian is drunk, according to a report from the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2012. And 35 percent of pedestrians who are fatally injured by car crashes have a blood alcohol content of .08 (the legal driving limit) or higher. Those figures are even more dramatic in other countries, said the report—in Australia, 45 percent of pedestrians struck and killed by cars were inebriated while walking; in the UK and in Sweden, drunkenness accounts for two thirds of pedestrian fatalities. So while walking while drunk is less likely to harm others, it's still inarguably risky for the pedestrian.

Photo by Flickr user Timothy L

RIDING A BIKE

Biking while drunk is less dangerous than driving and more dangerous than walking, which makes a kind of intuitive sense. It's also worth noting that it's illegal to ride a bicycle while under the influence, and you can get charged with "biking under the influence" if you blow over the legal limit.

Of the few hundred bicycle deaths each year, about a quarter of them involve a cyclist who had been drinking, according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. Another study, from Johns Hopkins, suggested that drinking before riding a bicycle increased "the rider's risk of fatal or serious injury by 2,000 percent." That's partly because drunk-biking accidents often involve other factors—things like biking in high-traffic areas or biking without a helmet—but the point is clear. Biking isn't a good option when you're drunk. Same goes for skateboarding, rollerblading, or whatever the kids are into these days.

Screenshot via YouTube

RIDING A HORSE

You can get charged with a DUI for this, too. Or, actually, it's called an "RUI," because you aren't driving the horse, you're riding it. From a legal perspective, it's worse to get on a horse drunk than ride a bike, because you can get charged with animal cruelty.

From a safety perspective, it's hard to say how dangerous it is to ride a horse while drunk. There aren't really any statistics on this kind of thing, but one can imagine all kinds of horrible situations you could get into while trying to coax a horse to take you home. Then again, there's this public-service announcement from Montana, which shows a man being picked up by his trusty horse as he leaves the bar. So this would work, I guess, depending on the trustiness of your horse.

Photo by Flickr user smplstc

PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION

People who ride the subway drunk are usually more annoying than dangerous. Still, being drunk ups your chances of falling down, being hit by a train, or running into other trouble. About a year ago, the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority released surveillance footage from that city's train system that included showed multiple instances of intoxicated people falling down escalators, over walls, and onto the tracks. Metro spokesman Dan Stessel told the Washington Post, "The point here is that there is such a thing as too drunk to be on Metro."

There was also a 13-year study from Columbia University that found that in 46 percent of accidental subway fatalities, the victim had been drinking. The study suggested that drunk subway riders bring along a sober friend—a "designated rider," if you will—to spot them.

All in all, though, public transport seems to be a much safer option than driving, biking, or walking. The problem, of course, is that most cities' public transportation doesn't run all night, so if you're out until last call, you'll probably miss the last train home.

Photo by Flickr user Jason Tester

CALLING AN UBER

Uber was practically invented to chauffeur drunk people around—it's such a big part of Uber's marketing model that the company recently partnered with the breathalyzer app Breathomoter to make it easier for people whose BAC is over the legal limit to get a ride.

A new report, issued by Uber and co-sponsored by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, showed that the rideshare service has done a lot to curb drunk -driving accidents. In Seattle, the report claimed, there was a 10 percent fall in drunk driving arrests associated with the use of Uber.

The biggest risk in taking an Uber while you're drunk is that you'll get charged out the ass for it. Surge pricing normally goes into effect right around the time when bars start to close, and there have been countless stories of drunk passengers stuck with exorbitantly expensive bills (like that girl who was charged $362 for a 20-minute ride). There have also been accounts of Uber drivers aimlessly driving around (something you'd be less likely to notice if you were drunk) to hike up the cost of the ride. One woman reported that she passed out in an Uber and woke up to a $293 bill for a ride that logged more than three times the distance that it should have.

The other safety concern involves getting into a car with a stranger. Every now and then, there's a truly horrifying story about an Uber ride gone wrong—like the woman who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted by an Uber driver, or the Uber driver who attacked his passengers with a hammer. But in the grand scheme of things, your chances of getting a psychotic driver are pretty slim. And if it weren't for the occasional bad apple of a driver and the price gouging, Uber would always be a safe, solid option for getting home when you're drunk.

Photo by Flickr user James Palinsad

HAVING A DESIGNATED DRIVER

Before Uber and Lyft and all of the touch-of-a-button ridesharing apps saturated the market, there was an old-fashioned way of getting home safely: the designated driver. Here's a person who you know and trust, who isn't going to charge you anything for a ride home, who will unburden you from the responsibility of having to drive yourself, and who will probably go to extra lengths to make sure you're OK once you actually get home. It's a beautiful thing, really. There's just one little hiccup: Most designated drivers end up drinking anyway.

A team of researchers actually set out to quantify this a few years ago. Their study, which was published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in 2013, showed that almost 40 percent of designated drivers didn't abstain from drinking, and 18 percent of them had BAC levels of 0.5 or greater by the end of the night. It's easy to fall into the logic that "one drink won't hurt," but we know that driving with any amount of alcohol in your blood can be dangerous. So the DD system isn't all that effective, unless you can trust that your designated driver is actually truly sober.

That said, if you happen to have one of those friends who you can be sure won't drink that night—because they're Mormon or straight-edge or an alcoholic or whatever—then having a designated driver is, far and away, the safest option. Unless you have a really well-trained horse.

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