A Calgary man was believed to be intoxicated when he ignored flashing lights and alarms, stepped around the barriers and walked into the path of an oncoming LRT train Wednesday night. The impact threw him 15 metres into the street, and he was rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries.
This latest incident underscores the often overlooked danger of walking while drunk, which, according to a 2009 Transport Canada report, was a factor in 42 per cent of pedestrian fatalities in 2006, the most current data available.
More than a quarter of those killed had a blood alcohol concentration level of 0.16 per cent or higher, more than twice the legal limit for drivers.
"We always think about drinking and driving, but we never think about drinking and walking – and it can have just as serious injuries," said Thomas Esposito, a trauma surgeon at Loyola University Hospital in Illinois.
Roads are particularly dangerous for pedestrians around New Year's Day.
A 2005 analysis of 15 years of motor vehicle collisions in the United States showed that more pedestrians are killed on Jan. 1 than any other day of the year. Of those killed, 58 per cent had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit.
Dr. Michael Fehlings, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Toronto, says the data is consistent with what doctors see in Toronto.
There hasn't been an equivalent study in Canada, but researchers at the Ottawa-based Traffic Injury Research Foundation concluded in a 2008 report that "alcohol is a major contributing factor in pedestrian crashes."
"The bottom line is that emergency physicians and trauma surgeons have always felt that there is a correlation," said Anil Chopra, the medical director of the emergency medicine program at the University Health Network in Toronto.
That contrasts with the attitudes of Canadians polled by researchers at the Traffic Injury Research Foundation: 87 per cent indicated they do not think pedestrians and cyclists involved in collisions are frequently under the influence of alcohol.
Of the injured pedestrians he's seen in the emergency room over the years, Dr. Chopra said about one in four are over the legal limit. But even a few drinks make it harder to get home safely. "Even if you're at half the legal limit, your ability to stand upright and walk a certain distance is impacted."
More importantly, alcohol impairs judgment, which leads people to take risks, he said. "You're maybe more likely to want to cross a busy street in the middle of the street instead of at the intersection."
Added Geoff Fernie, vice-president of research at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute: "It also seems that because it's colder you try to move faster. You take more chances crossing the road."
He points out that, alcohol aside, there are a number of other reasons winter is more dangerous for pedestrians, including the risks of snow and ice underfoot and shorter daylight hours, which reduces visibility.
Public transit is also cut back on major holidays, leaving revellers with fewer transportation options, Dr. Chopra said.
"I think the message there is not to imply that walking and intoxication is as dangerous as driving a vehicle while intoxicated," Dr. Fehlings said. "But I think what the public needs to know is that it's not safe either."