While perusing the North Carolina Collection’s massive collection of newspaper clippings, we came upon an odd subject heading: “Lying-In-Road Deaths.” We went to the clippings and found two articles from 1986 reporting on a study by Dr. Lawrence Harris, a medical examiner in Greenville, who reported that between 1980 and 1984, 136 North Carolinians were killed while lying in the road. This bizarre phenomenon was a little easier to understand when we read that 85 percent of the victims were heavily intoxicated at the time of their death. Apparently in the majority of the cases the victim was walking home after a bout of heavy drinking, caught cold, and decided to lay down on the warm paved road.
Although not unique to North Carolina, we seem to have had far more lying-in-road deaths than any other state. Georgia was second on the list, but with only forty percent of North Carolina’s total. In an editorial under the headline “Liquored Up, Smashed Flat,” the Wilmington Star-News asked “Why us, why here?” Dr. Harris speculated that the high rate of what columnist Hal Crowther called “tragic human possums” in North Carolina had something to do with the prevalence of warm weather, alcohol abuse, and poverty.
There were no more clippings on the topic in our files after 1986, so we can’t report on whether or not things have improved since then. We think a follow-up study is in order.