WaPo Blames "Distracted Walking" for Unexplained Rise in Deaths

Pedestrian deaths are up. That’s the news from a recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Almost 4,300 pedestrians were killed in 2010 — the most recent year for which data is available. That represents a four percent increase — the first in five years.

Apparently the mere sight of pedestrians on cellphones is enough to lead the Washington Post to blame the victims of traffic fatalities. Photo: ##http://www.technobuffalo.com/mobile-devices/phones/new-jersey-town-begins-fining-pedestrians-for-texting-while-walking/##Buffalotechno##

What’s going on here? Well, no one knows. As Tanya pointed out last week, NHTSA did not present data that explains underlying causes. But that hasn’t stopped some press outlets from rushing to blame the victim. See: last week’s editorial by the Washington Post, “Pedestrian Deaths Show Need to Curb Distracted Walking.”

Network blog Wash Cycle says the paper should know better…

But they aren’t going to let a complete lack of understanding for the cause of a phenomenon stop them from proposing a change in law to counteract it. About the best they have is a study showing that over 1000 people were estimated to have been injured while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device.

This is not to say that distracted walking isn’t an issue. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. I don’t see it a lot when I bike, but then I don’t commute along a route with many pedestrians. But it is odd that after an uptick in pedestrian fatalities – almost all of which involve cars, the Post immediately turns its glare onto the victims.

Especially when there are other possible explanations. Perhaps, there are more people walking and they’re walking more miles, in which case more fatalities is expected. Maybe the economic downturn means that more people are walking – because they can’t afford to drive, and they’re doing so in non-walkable areas like the suburbs and so they’re getting hit more.  Perhaps it is just a one-year blip. Who knows?

So it’s a pretty flimsy case to say that based on data we don’t understand, we think that a law that no one has ever tried should be instituted to address a problem that we can’t really prove exists.

Transportation for America’s Dangerous by Design report found that more than half of the pedestrian deaths between 2000 and 2009 occurred on major arterials — which strongly indicates road design is to blame for putting pedestrians at risk. A more enlightened discussion would focus on car-centric engineering standards, vehicle speeds, and other known factors that contribute to America’s exceptionally high rate of traffic deaths. Is that too much to expect from the press these days?

Elsewhere on the Network today: Portland Transport says “America’s Bike Capital” might get into the parklet business. Bike Portland introduces the “tiny house” bike RV. And Greater Greater Washington presents details on the bus rapid transit system planned for Montgomery County, Maryland.

  • Mark Walker

    Like the Wash Cycle blogger, I don’t know whether distracted walking does or doesn’t cause or contribute to pedestrian deaths. But it definitely exists and it is steadily getting worse. Distracted walkers float down the sidewalk in a bubble of inattention that is oblivious and disrespectful to other pedestrians. The rest of us constantly have to maneuver to avoid them because they don’t watch where they’re going. Their inattention pollutes public space and pisses in the communion wine. While I rarely cut drivers a break, they too have to deal with distracted pedestrians, just as pedestrians have to deal with distracted drivers. Of course a distracted driver is more dangerous to others because the element of distraction is added to a multi-ton death machine, which amplifies harm. But it is hypocritical to speak as if only one class of street user is guilty of distraction. The only ones with an ethical out are transit users: They can sit or stand, immersed in their devices, and harm or insult no one.

  • Albert

    I, too, dislike the hordes of Astral Projections wandering around outside bumping into others when their minds are actually elsewhere.  Yet, at the same time, it’s very sad that in a time where most traditional predators are banished from cities a person can’t sometimes just wander around and relax rather than spend every second using “duck & cover.”  Motor vehicles are the new lions, tigers and bears.

  •  You know what I like most about the linked WaPo opinion?  

    I like that paragraph three begins with the line “No one seems to know what accounts for the uptick, and the data say next to nothing about the increase, either”.  

    Then it goes on to blame “distracted walking”.  

    If we’re going to blame distraction, let’s spread the blame out fairly and equally.  Anybody who stands on the side of the road (at least in my part of town) can see that everybody, motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians, are going around with their heads up their b**ts, and they don’t necessarily need cell phones or ipods to do this. 

  • Charles_Siegel

    Distracted walkers are a nuisance for other pedestrians.  They often get in my way when I am walking, and of course, they usually don’t notice when other pedestrians are near them. 

  • dk12

    distracted walking?  doesn’t matter – motorists are the ones who should pay the most attention b/c they are the most dangerous thing on the road.  This is why we desperately need vulnerable road users legislation that places liability on the motorist.

    as an aside – this could also potentially raise insurance rates on larger vehicles (as they cause more damage) in more urban neighborhoods – which would help reduce number of large vehicles except for commercial uses. People really don’t need to drive giant 4-wheel drive SUVs in the city.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    I am all for banning things that annoy me but this is about 25,000th on the list.

    It is somewhere between encouraging drivers to get their oil changed every 3,000 miles and the “hot” label on a coffee cup.

    Lets start with 1. BPA 2. Coal 3. non-commercial vehicles which get less than 30mpg …etc  Once we get to distracted walking we can ban that too, but it isn’t a priority.

  • Jesse Greene

    I like the idea of safe pleasant public space you can get lost in.  If distracted walkers get in the way of determined walkers then we need wider sidewalks.  If distracted walkers get in the way of distracted drivers then we need fewer and slower drivers.  Good public spaces should accommodate this phenomenon rather than “crack down” on it.

  • Miles Bader

    An clueless “blame the victim” move by people who no doubt drive a lot and love their cars (sound familiar?  kinda like the NYT’s editorial stance on transportation, no?)…

    So what do they suggest?  Perhaps pedestrian helmets and pedestrian licensing (anybody who fails their annual license test required to drive instead)?  Steep penalties for anybody caught listening to music in public?

    All to protect the “right” of SUV drivers to barrel around at high speeds, without due care, on badly designed roads that are way too wide, and way too fast.

    If they want fewer deaths, here’s a suggestion:  slow down traffic, and widen sidwalks (narrowing the roads).  Add protected bike lanes (further narrowing roads).  Plant trees to separate the road / pavement / bike lanes (further narrowing the road, and making it much more pleasant for users as well).  Fund public transportation that’s actually nice enough to get people out of their cars. Where there are dangerous intersections, use traffic calming measures to slow down traffic and provide added pedestrian protectio. Get rid of excess parking, and get rid of free parking entirely.

    Not only will that make the city safer, but it will make the city much nicer as well…  How about it, WaPo editors?

  • I do think that distracted walking does cause or contribute to pedestrian deaths, and it is steadily getting worse. I think the desire of needing to connect constantly with media and people out there taking us away from what is really going on around us… sad.

  • KillMoto
  • Erik Griswold

    Are you surprised?

    Look at the print copy of today’s or any day’s Washington Post or any other “local” newspaper (i.e. Not USAToday, the WSJ, the Financial Times, or the national NYT).
    What industry is one of if not the largest advertiser in the paper still?

    Hint: The advert will usually contain the words “One available at this price”

  • AnxiouslyAwaitingBikeshare

    I wish it was some great media conspiracy but unfortunately it is how the majority of Americans think.

  • Davistrain

    “Distracted walkers” have been a problem for over a hundred years.  Visitors to our railway museum see the safety device on the front of our 1911 streetcar and ask, “Is that a cow-catcher?” and I’ll tell them, “No, it’s people-catcher” and explain that when the car was new, there were lots of saloons downtown and many pedestrians who had spent some time in one or more, trying unsuccessfully to drink the place dry.  We don’t have so much of that anymore, but now we have this (here I pull out my cell-phone and walk in front of the car, miming a heedless yakker) “Oh darn!  I just got hit by a trolley–I’ll call ya back.”

  • @baderstine

    When the economy rebounds from a recession, all types of vehicle-related fatalities tend to increase.  Distracted walking can certainly be a factor, but so can distracted driving.  The latter is obviously more dangerous but also more difficult to regulate.  
    The increase in pedestrian fatalities could be related to both of these and/or other factors.
    That said, the numbers deserve more intensive investigation before pointing towards this cause or that.  Another equally valid conjecture based on the topline numbers: there are simply more people driving and/or walking – perhaps in unfamiliar places or unfamiliar vehicles due to new jobs, new homes, or increased job-seeking.  Even if the percentage of distracted pedestrians and drivers stays the same, if the total number of them increases, or they start taking more trips each day, then one could reasonably expect the total number of fatalities to increase.
    Both drivers and pedestrians have a responsibility to be cautious, observant and courteous when taking trips.  Planners, engineers and lawmakers for their part should implement appropriate changes to make facilities safer for all who are involved.  Ideally, data-driven decisions will play some part deciding which changes to make and evaluating the effectiveness of changes afterwards.

  • @baderstine

    Others still get annoyed if the volume is up too high, or they’re looking at porn.

  • Not really surprising…in NYC, the DOT has started posting PSAs addressed to pedestrians to pay attention.

  • Miles Bader

    The vast bulk of the responsibility lies with those who are presenting the danger—and that’s cars.

    If they’re tougher to catch, that’s too bad, but that doesn’t make it OK to just give up and blame pedestrians because they’re an easier target…!

  • Harry G

    Amen. These people need to start paying attention and remember that cars generally have the right of way in America. This isn’t Europe.

  • Harry G

    America is buit with cars in mind. Any solution which does not maximize vehicle throughput is unacceptable. The war on cars is not going to succeed here. We value our freedom, privacy, and efficiency too much for that. If you want a walker friendly environment, move to Holland.

  • John W

    It could be distracted walking, in part.  It could also be that more people are walking in general (i.e., more exposure).  Hard to say without data.

  • John W

     Are they paying attention to the PSAs?

  • John

     You’re allowed to kick pedestrians in the shins in NYC if their head is pointed down at a 45 degree angle or lower.  That’s a real law; I wouldn’t make this up.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I was standing on line at a restaurant yesterday, waiting to order.  It turned out that the people at the counter ahead of me had already ordered.  They didn’t move and let other people order, because one was on a typing on a smart phone and the other was reading an iPad.

  • Mig

    Harry G:  based on your comments it sounds like you spaced out during driver’s education and history.  First of all it is the United States of America…”America” is not a country but a region or city in some states.  Secondly, the United States of America was founded in the 18th century, so the idea that this country or this country’s transportation system was or is built solely for the automobile is simply contrary to the historical record. 

    While you may fell that maximizing vehicle throughput is the priority, there are plenty of engineers, planners, and decision makers who disagree with you and are designing their cities accordingly IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. 

    Finally, your definitions of freedom, privacy, and efficiency are very different than folks who would argue that not being tied to a car payment, insurance payment, fluctuations of gas prices, peak hour congestion, and similar ills of vehicle dependence is far more liberating than owning a car.  Arguably, the fact that all you need for a bike is money whereas you need a drivers license, insurance, financing, etc. for most cars, I don’t see how you can argue this allows you greater privacy.  And in terms of use of road space, energy efficiency, and cost, a bicycle and the human foot are far more efficient than the vast majority of cars.  While you are certainly entitled to your opinion, hopefully you can recognize that your statements amount to little more than talking points that have little to no validity when undergoing scrutiny.  If you don’t want a multi-modal environment that is fine, but in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA things are decided by the people not a misinformed individual such as yourself.  Sure there are who share your opinion, but again that does not dictate that development should occur as you see fit.  The most vibrant economic places generally do no emphasize maximizing vehicular throughput, so in the end it will be your loss and our gain.  Keep your 1950’s development philosophy confined to your community, please.  We’ll be working hard to that same end.

  • Please delete this comment.

  • Personally, I believe distracted walking is a serious issue.  This is because using a smart device monopolises attention, drawing people away from the environment around them (while they may see it, they don’t properly process what is happening in real time).  While it is easy to place blame on a driver, there is not a lot they can do if a pedestrian steps into their path only a few metres ahead – stopping safely that quickly is almost impossible.  Furthermore, no one but the pedestrian can be blamed in cases like the Philadelphian man who fell on to train tracks while distracted by a phone call.

    What can be done?  I don’t think legislation is the answer, as it is difficult to enforce and the public are not very receptive.  To encourage change, I believe a public education campaign is required, which should ultimately spark self-regulation.


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