How “Distracted Walking” Hype Puts Pedestrians at Risk

It's easier to blame pedestrian deaths on victims than to confront our responsibility to create a safer transportation system. Photo: Strong Towns
It's easier to blame pedestrian deaths on victims than to confront our responsibility to create a safer transportation system. Photo: Strong Towns

In some quarters it’s almost become an article of faith that pedestrian deaths are on the rise in the U.S. because of “distracted walking.” The victim-blaming impulse allows policymakers, opinion shapers, and the broader public to conveniently avoid honestly confronting our car-centric transportation system and the horrific volume of death and misery it generates.

The idea that pedestrian distraction is a significant source of harm is starting to shape public policy in tangible ways. The Honolulu City Council recently passed a bill to outlaw looking at a mobile device while crossing the street — on foot, at least. If you’re driving, it would still be lawful to look at your dash-mounted phone while crossing an intersection. (The mayor has yet to take a position on the bill.)

A closer look at the research on pedestrian distraction that has fed the developing conventional wisdom reveals that it doesn’t support laws like the one under consideration in Honolulu. Systemic Failure deflates the hype:

The mass hysteria over Distracted Walking originated with a paper published by Jack Nasar (Ohio State University) and his student Derek Troyer. They argued that the increasing use of cell phones had caused a spike in pedestrian injuries. They were featured in major newspapers, such as the NY Times. Cell phones, it was reported, had caused over 1,000 serious injuries per year. And that was just the “tip of the iceberg” it was argued because many injuries don’t require hospitalization.

In absolute terms, those numbers may seem catastrophic. But in relative terms, they are insignificant. Just 3% of the pedestrian hospitalizations involved a cell phone. That is according to Nasar’s own numbers.

The 3% figure accounts for any kind of injury, not just ones involving motor vehicles. And the 3% figure covers use of a cell phone in any kind public space, not just sidewalks.

If the Honolulu bill passes, it could simply serve as a pretext for arbitrarily harassing pedestrians. And as Systemic Failure notes, it could even increase traffic risks by creating a more permissive atmosphere for driving behaviors that pose a greater threat.

Meanwhile, automakers are making in-dash computer systems a standard feature in cars without arousing much alarm from safety scolds.

More recommended reading today: The State Smart Transportation Initiative reviews the share of road spending paid by drivers in each state. And the Bike League writes in the wake of Oregon’s new bike tax, you should gird yourself for copycat legislation in other states.

  • Stuart

    Are you going to tell me after the City spends this $17M streets will be safe and we will be absolved from “looking both ways?”

    No, I’m saying that pedestrians are constantly subjected to people telling them that it’s their job to be safe, while ignoring or minimizing the role driver responsibility and street design play in safety, so Vision Zero and Walk SF don’t need to add to that chorus. They can focus on the part that not enough people are talking about and that is a much bigger part of the problem.

    When the status quo is that cities are passing laws that make it illegal to walk across the street while looking at a phone but not illegal to drive through a crosswalk while looking at a phone, and newspapers are unironically running stories telling pedestrians not to wear dark clothing right next to stories telling drivers about clever ways to use their phones while driving, being yet another group telling pedestrians that the burden of safety is on them is not going to be a priority for pedestrian advocacy and safety groups.

  • SF Guest

    While I agree driver error or negligence play a huge role in pedestrian collisions and deserve all the attention it’s given I cannot agree or ignore Vision Zero, Walk SF and other walking advocacy groups who do not send out friendly PSA reminders to pedestrians to be alert at all times.

    All three sources I provided above list safety tips for both drivers and pedestrians. Regard and burden for your own personal safety goes hand in hand in any discussion on pedestrian safety, and it’s very ironic whenever walking advocacy groups make no mention.

    What’s needed is both driver and pedestrian education and enforcement. Unless someone has the solution to make all motorists error-free both motorists and pedestrians must work together to minimize fatalities.

    I agree with your position that cities which pass distracted pedestrian laws should have reciprocal laws for distracted drivers. Distraction laws should never be exclusively targeted to the most vulnerable road users.

    Conversely I interpret walking advocacy groups who omit pedestrians have the burden of responsibility for their own personal safety deliberately omit it to push their own agenda to spend taxpayer monies on street infrastructure improvements.

  • Stuart

    Yes, it’s shocking that a pedestrian safety organization would push the insidious agenda of making street improvements that have proven track records of actually improving pedestrian safety, without using limited resources to actively repeat the dominant narrative that’s already being widely pushed by car-centric interests and is mostly used to try to distract attention away from any changes that might make things slightly less convenient for drivers.

    Meanwhile, I’m sure it’s an innocent coincidence that you keep talking about pedestrian responsibility in the same comments where you keep mentioning that making streets safer will cost taxpayer money (just like widening them to make them more dangerous for the convenience of drivers, which is a big part of how we got here, did, but you omit mentioning that). Definitely no agenda there.

  • SF Guest

    Stuart, those are your words and not mine which you reworded out of context. It’s never shocking a pedestrian safety organization would push an agenda to redesign streets which removes car-centric interests.

    What’s really shocking are pedestrian safety orgs which only emphasize the need for infrastructure improvements and a PSA intended for only motorists which excludes the most vulnerable road users.

    Suggesting roads need to be redesigned due to inattentive or erroneous driver behavior is a valid argument, but the argument becomes voided once you inject the other side of your argument that pedestrians bear no responsibility for their own safety and defies the logic if drivers are not looking out for your safety why would a pedestrian not look out for his/her own safety. And by your own admission one’s duty “to look both ways” is not absolved by implementing street improvements. Distracted walking is not hype as this writer suggests.

    The pedestrian safety orgs can easily fix their image perception problem as aforementioned, and it would be no skin off their back.

  • Saying that pedestrians should pay better attention in order to avoid getting run over is the exact equivalent to saying that women should dress less sexily in order to avoid being raped. In other words: it is outrageously offensive.

    Every bit of advocacy involving street safety should be directed at the behaviour of drivers, because drivers are the sole cause of all injury and death that occurs on the streets.

    I as a bicyclist certainly find distracted pedestrians to be an annoyance. However, I understand that it is my responsibility to accommodate them, and not theirs to accommodate me. And the same is true for drivers. The onus is on every driver and every bicyclist not to hit pedestrians — including the clueless pedestrians who cross in the middle of the street or against the light.

  • SF Guest

    That would be equivalent to saying the numerous agencies which direct PSAs at both drivers and pedestrians is offensive and only the advocacy groups that direct PSAs at drivers only are correct. That’s really deep.

  • It’s true that a PSA which is directed at pedestrians is offensive. Such a message is as valid as a PSA from the 1950s which seeks to tell girls how to behave like ladies. Both peddle nonsense that is based on backward and thoroughly discredited views of society.

  • Stuart

    Suggesting roads need to be redesigned due to inattentive or erroneous driver behavior is a valid argument, but the argument becomes voided

    Bzzzt. Your logical fallacy is: ad hominem.

    The argument for redesigning streets is based on safety data from similar redesigns. Your opinion of Walk SF, Vision Zero, or me has absolutely no impact on the validity of that argument.

    once you inject the other side of your argument that pedestrians bear no responsibility for their own safety

    I’ve never said that, the post this comment thread is attached to never says that, and you’ve not shown any evidence of Walk SF saying that.

    Instead, you’ve taken the fact that they aren’t actively spending time and money pushing pedestrian-targeted PSAs and repeatedly and incorrectly asserted that there’s only one possible reason for that (ignoring the various other reasons I and others have presented why they might not spend their resources that way), worked backward from that to assert beliefs on other people’s behalf, and then judged them based on those supposed beliefs. (Maybe you’ve been reading too many RichLL comments?)

    If you truly believe that the only reason to spend resources on X but not Y is that you are opposed to Y, here’s an exercise for you to do at home: list every charity that you don’t give money or time to, and ask yourself why you are opposed to that charity’s core mission. (Don’t give money to the ACLU–why do you hate free speech? Don’t give money to Doctors Without Borders–why do you hate helping people who are hurt or sick? etc.) Hopefully at some point during that process you’ll see the flaw in your premise.

    Distracted walking is not hype as this writer suggests.

    The writer suggests that the narrative that distracted walking is the primary reason for increases in pedestrian deaths is hype, and that the narrative that distracted walking is “a significant source of harm” is hype. You’re the one equating ‘not one of the most important things to focus on’ and ‘not real’.

  • Rex Rocket

    You can “look both ways” until your head is spinning, and still get clocked by some bad driver turning left. The problem isn’t pedestrians seeing cars, it is drivers seeing pedestrians and still not giving the right of way.

  • ZeroVisionPhila

    It’s pretty simple if you do what you were taught in school. If you walked to the nearest corner and crossed the street and at the GREEN light. If there is a crosswalk wait for it to clear of traffic then cross. You will safety make it to your destination. Because we J-Walk. We have our eyes in our devices because we cannot miss that post or text. We are even loaded up. On Liquid Courage and Chemical Powers. It’s most important that we follow what we were taught in school. Because some drivers do the above. Safe driver punishments will not end pedestrians getting hit by cars.

  • SF Guest

    Looking both ways keeps me out of trouble including the time a car was going in reverse from my left with no traffic coming from the right.

  • SF Guest

    I’ve heard this same argument over and over whereby motorists make mistakes or don’t see pedestrians which is true but to suggest pedestrians don’t have a duty to watch out for their own personal safety is a lie.

  • SF Guest

    Right-of-way rules, together with courtesy and common sense, help to promote traffic safety. It is important to respect the right-of-way of others, especially pedestrians, motorcycle riders, and bicycle riders. Never assume other drivers will give you the right-of-way. Yield your right-of-way when it helps to prevent collisions. Respecting the right-of-way of others is not limited to situations such as yielding to pedestrians in crosswalks, or watching carefully to ensure the right-of-way of bicyclists and motorcyclists. –State of California Department of Motor Vehicles

  • The true snowflakeism is behind the steering wheel: “Who cares if someone died, it was an accident, I’m the real victim here.”

  • Everyone already knows this.

  • Stuart

    > Vision Zero makes no advisory for pedestrians to look both ways

    Here’s a simple question for you. True or false: Blind and visually impaired pedestrians should be able to cross the street at a crosswalk without being killed.

    Follow-up question: If you were a group trying to improve safety for all pedestrians, including the blind and visually impaired, how effective do you think a PSA telling them to look both ways would be?

    Bonus question: What kind of “image perception problem” might result for your group among the blind and visually impaired if you put out a PSA telling them never to use a crosswalk without looking both ways first?

  • Stuart

    Nice editing job, stopping just before the sentence starting “Motorists must respect the right-of-way of others”, which would have made it clear that you’re quoting from the “California Driver Handbook” and that all of that text is therefore targeted to motorists (i.e., the ones operating the machines that can easily kill people in collisions).

    You also didn’t mention the fact that after the intro, the next several sub-sections are all about pedestrian right of way and crosswalks.

    What that section actually illustrates is that the CA driver’s manual tells drivers what they need to do with regards to pedestrian rights, without lecturing pedestrians. Kind of undermines your argument.

  • Mike

    Is this distracted-walking hype, too?

  • Stuart

    I’ll field this easy question: No. Here’s a simple guide:
    ‘If you text while walking, it could end in embarrassment’ (this video clip) => Not hype. Obviously true.
    ‘Using your smartphone while walking has “a lot to do” with the spike in pedestrian fatalities’ (the Today Show’s primary spin) => Hype. Not at all what the studies show.

  • Andrew

    But if drivers really are as bad as you say, then isn’t that an argument for pedestrians to be less “distracted” and to pay more attention?

    No, it’s an argument to hold drivers responsible for their actions.

  • Amerisod

    No one said distracted walking never results in an accident. People were wandering in front of streetcars a hundred years ago. But is it the reason for a spike in pedestrian fatalities? No.

  • Amerisod

    I agree. Do you ever drive the speed limit and get passed by all these speeding cars only to meet up with them at the next traffic light? Speeding never got them anywhere. It only endangered everyone along the way, especially all the pedestrians walking next to the street.

    Giving pedestrians a walk signal while all the traffic is stopped makes it a lot safer for pedestrians but might mildly inconvenience motorists, so many traffic engineers feel it is not worth it.

    A big impediment to pedestrian safety is the government. They often prioritize movement of vehicles over pedestrian safety and walkability. Wide lanes more suited to rural highways encourage speeding and are often found in built up neighborhoods. Right turn lanes are often built with a radius that allows cars to speed around a corner making it difficult to even see a pedestrian. All the above tells drivers that the streets are for them, and so they act accordingly.

  • Amerisod

    It’s true that distracted walking is not the reason for a spike of pedestrian fatalities. Much needs to be done with creating a proper pedestrian infrastructure, the idea that a pedestrian can be on every street corner needs to be normalized among drivers, and traffic calming needs to be introduced in many areas.

    But of course pedestrians also need to be very aware of their surroundings. No one is saying otherwise. People have been walking in front of cars and horses for many years before texting came around. People walking often have no idea how invisible they are on rainy moonless nights with lots of glare, yet they often saunter into the street as if they have a spotlight on them. When you are made of skin and bone and cars have a ton of steel, it requires vigilance, even when you have the right of way.

    But to insinuate that pedestrians are the problem absolves governments from their responsibility to create streets that serve everyone in safety.