21 died lying in N.C roads last year; Safety officials aren't sure how to prevent the deaths Highest toll since 1972


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Roughly once a month in North Carolina, usually after a night of drinking, somebody lies down in the road and is run over and killed.

Mention the obscure statistic, and people often laugh. But it's an alarming problem in North Carolina -- the only Southern state aside from South Carolina to track it -- because highway safety officials aren't sure how to prevent these deaths.

It's not easily solved by traditional precautions, such as lowering the speed limit or installing a traffic signal at a congested crossroads.

"You cannot put up a sign saying, 'Do not lie in the road,' because you do not know where people are going to lie down in the road," said Eric Rodgman, senior database analyst for the UNC Highway Safety Research Center, part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "People driving at night do not expect to find people lying there."

Last year's lying-in-the-road death toll in North Carolina reached 21, the highest tally since 40 were killed in 1972, according to the state's Department of Motor Vehicles. That accounted for slightly more than one in 10 of the state's 199 pedestrian fatalities in 1998. Another 16 were injured.

During the 1990s, such deaths in North Carolina have averaged 13 a year, a problem that officials blame partly on alcoholism among the poor, homeless and mentally ill.

The victims are typically men who are intoxicated. Most often, they die in the hours just before or after midnight. Most of the accidents occur during the summer months, often on rural roads.

"The lying-in-the-road scenario almost invariably involves people who are passed out or asleep," said Lawrence Harris, a retired North Carolina medical examiner and a pathology professor at East Carolina State University in Greenville.

In 1985, he co-wrote "While Lying in the Road --The Prone Pedestrian," a report that documented 136 such North Carolina fatalities over five years. Since few other states keep separate statistics on the phenomenon, North Carolina was saddled with the reputation of leading the nation in the category.

In a 1986 editorial titled "Liquored Up, Smashed Flat," the Star-News in Wilmington concluded that it is "true and painfully obvious that not all of the South will rise again."

In the years since, it's grown more difficult to determine how widespread the problem is in the South. Police crash reports in Georgia and Tennessee, for instance, no longer single out lying-in-the-road deaths as a separate category of pedestrian fatalities.

Nationally, agencies that monitor traffic fatalities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Highway Safety Administration, do not keep separate statistics on lying-in-the-road deaths.

"My question has always been: How many of these are suicides?" said Bill Shanks, statistician for the Alabama Department of Public Safety.

While the Alabama agency doesn't officially track such deaths, Shanks scans the police crash reports noting whether officers describe fatalities as lying in the road. He found three such cases last year among the state's 79 pedestrian fatalities.

In Virginia, the Department of Motor Vehicles tracks accidents involving people "standing or lying in the road." That number totaled 156 in 1997, the latest figures. But the agency does not separate fatalities from injuries.

Last year in South Carolina, one person died lying in the road, while six died sitting in the road. Those deaths accounted for 6.3 percent of the state's 111 pedestrian fatalitites.

Not all the victims die after staggering drunk into the road. Last August, a 24-year-old Charlotte man who was intoxicated fell from the back of a pickup truck. Another vehicle struck and killed him.

In 1993, the parents of an 18-year-old Pennsylvanian said he died while imitating a scene from the movie "The Program." It showed several drunken college football players lying in a road to prove their toughness.

Pub Date: 09/24/99

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