“Distracted Walking” Is a Distraction From the Real Problem

Data clearly shows that distracted driving is the genuine public safety threat. But lawmakers still traffic in victim-blaming.

Distracted driving is a large and growing public safety threat in Ontario, according to the provincial transportation department. Distracted walking is not. Graph: TriTag
Distracted driving is a large and growing public safety threat in Ontario, according to the provincial transportation department. Distracted walking is not. Graph: TriTag

Laws to penalize the act of “distracted walking” are rearing their ugly heads across North America.

Honolulu started the trend this summer by making it illegal to look at your phone while crossing the street, which local legislators in other cities took as inspiration.

The next domino to fall might be the Canadian province of Ontario, where Yvan Baker of the Etobicoke Centre provincial electoral district has proposed legislation cutely named “Phones Down, Heads Up.”

The problem with these laws is that they don’t target a genuine public safety threat. And Mike Boos of the Waterloo-based Tri-Cities Transport Action Group has the numbers to prove it.

Boos crunched data from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, and the results plainly show that the rise in mobile connectivity tracks with an increase in distracted driving crashes. There is no sign that distracted walking is a significant or growing factor in collisions, Boos writes:

Contrary to claims by MPP Baker, collisions stemming from distracted walking are actually decreasing in Ontario!

How is it possible that, in spite of frequent sightings of people looking at their phones, distracted walking collisions are relatively infrequent? Some research suggests people slow down their walking when they’re looking at their devices, enabling them to avoid obstacles and not walk into trouble inadvertently. This compensation for risk isn’t foolproof, but it does a lot to mitigate the effects of being distracted.

Closer to home, the Region of Waterloo annual collision report indicates that pedestrians have been ‘inattentive’ in about 15% of collisions over the past five years, though that doesn’t mean they were found to be at fault in all such cases (or that they were looking at phones – it could just mean they didn’t look both ways). Indeed, in only 14% of collisions was a pedestrian crossing without the right-of-way.

By contrast, in only 23% of collisions with pedestrians was the driver found to be driving properly. If a driver makes an mistake and speeds into your path, it’s not clear how having your cellphone tucked away will change the outcome.  If the goal is to save lives, reducing or mitigating the effects of driver error seems like a much more effective place to start.

Regardless of what has greater impact, MPP Baker indicates that if just one life were saved by his bill, he’d feel it was worth it. The deterring power of fines is brought into question when we look back at that first chart and recall that Ontario introduced its first distracted driving law back in 2009. If there’s any evidence of lives saved by that legislation, it’s not in the numbers – injuries and deaths keep climbing until sometime around 2012. And if self-preservation isn’t sufficient motivation to pay close attention to the task of crossing the street, what’s the remote risk of a $50 fine?

People walking already have a clear incentive to pay attention around cars — self preservation. The harm of legislation like Baker’s is that it will add a new pretext to stop, harass, and fine people on foot without making anyone safer.

More recommended reading today: Greater Greater Washington lists five street signs that are really giveaways that a street has been poorly engineered. And Bike Portland writes about Tuesday’s vehicular attack in Manhattan and how we’ve allowed the threat of deadly driving, intentional or otherwise, to saturate our streets.

  • GregKamin

    I will provide that about 2 seconds after you demonstrate an understanding of what the word “accident means (and doesn’t mean).

  • Guy Ross

    Murder is also equatable to suicide? Punching a wall to another human’s face? Driving drunk or walking drunk?

  • Guy Ross

    Don’t be so hard on yourself. I’d call it ‘willful ignorance’.

  • Frank Kotter

    Why would you need cyclists to go 5 mph? Their capacity to harm is zero unless they are up around 30. Which a a downhill sprint. Again, you are mixing up actual risk with ‘feelings’.

  • 1980Gardener

    I have no idea what you are getting at.

  • Guy Ross

    Self harm vs. Harm to others through the same action. In my eyes they are not two sides of the same coin. For you, they are.

  • GregKamin

    I doubt that the voters would support restricting cars to, say, 15 mph while bikes have no limit. A political issue as much as anything.

  • GregKamin

    I don’t think anyone here is ignorant. Just that different people interpret the same facts differently

  • Andrew

    Everyone wants road users to be more careful, whether that is drivers, cyclists or even on occasions pedestrians.

    Speak for yourself. I want specifically the people who have the significant potential to cause damage to others through carelessness to be more careful, since they’re the ones who endanger my life and the lives of my friends and family.

    The people who can’t cause damage to others already have every incentive in the world to be careful – and if, in the end, they’re still not careful, they bear the brunt of the damage.

    It’s only when somebody tries to mandate speed limits that are unrealistic that problems arise.

    Fine, I’ll bite. What makes a speed limit unrealistic?

    Do you mean a speed limit that, in the absence of serious enforcement, drivers tend to ignore? Then that’s not an unrealistic speed limit; it’s simply a meaningful one. There’s no point in passing laws requiring people to do whatever they were going to do anyway.

    We have the speed limits that we have because they represent a consensus of the voters in whatever jurisdiction we are talking about.

    At least where I come from, speed limits are not typically decided by referendum.

    Make the limits higher and the accident rate goes up. Make them slower and congestion, delays and frustration happen.

    Speed limits on city streets have little if any impact on congestion.

    It’s cute how, in your description of the impacts of speed limit changes, you completely ignore the impacts on anyone who isn’t driving a car. Lower (and well-enforced) speed limits, for instance, make it easier for pedestrians to cross the street, for cyclists to move around, for transit riders to reach the bus stop – yet you simply ignore all of that.

    And the biggest danger to you on your bike is a driver who is angry and frustrated, regardless of speed.

    A driver who uses his vehicle as a weapon when he is “angry and frustrated” should be thrown in jail and be permanently relieved of his license to drive.

    Bucchere was exceeding the speed limit and not paying attention. If a driver had done that and killed a senior, you’d be baying for prison time. He basically got off.

    I don’t know how things work in San Francisco, but here in New York, multiple driver have exceeded the speed limit, failed to pay attention, and killed seniors on the sidewalk, and have ended up with maybe a traffic ticket.

    To give just one example of many: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2016/04/07/no-charges-for-cabbie-who-severely-injured-woman-on-sidewalk-near-nyu/

  • Andrew

    Actually studies show speed limits have no effect whatsoever on the speeds people drive at.

    …unless you actually enforce them.

    Kind of like pretty much every other law.

  • Andrew

    In my city, reducing motorist-on-pedestrian fatalities by 1% would save far more lives than eliminating all cyclist-on-pedestrian fatalities. I’d suggest that we allocate our enforcement resources accordingly.

  • Andrew

    “Jumped out” from behind a 15-foot-high hedge, or stepped into the roadway from a sidewalk in plain view? If the former (unlikely), the driver should slow down; if the latter, the driver should keep an eye on the sidewalk for approaching pedestrians. We’re talking about a city street here, not a highway.

    When motorists are required to yield to pedestrians, that means that motorists are required to yield to pedestrians, not (as you seem to believe) that pedestrians are required to yield to motorists.

    And even when motorists are not required to yield to pedestrians, the laws in my city nonetheless require motorists to exercise due care to avoid colliding with pedestrians.

  • Andrew

    Were you driving at an unsafe speed, or in excess of the legal speed limit? Driving slower would have given you a better chance of seeing the approaching jogger and of slowing down in time to avoid hitting him – and, even if you did hit him, you would have done so at a lower speed, reducing the likelihood of fatality.

    Were you exercising due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian? If you had no idea that a pedestrian was approaching until it was too late for you to hit him, I’d guess not.

    If the pedestrian was crossing in a (marked or unmarked) crosswalk, were you yielding to him? Quite obviously not.

    Believe it or not, drivers have responsibilities, too.

  • Andrew

    Did you just rewrite the law book to add “if possible?”

    Yes, that’s exactly what he did.

  • Andrew

    Most drivers, cyclists and pedestrians proceed on the basis that other road users are reasonable.

    If I (a pedestrian) proceeded on the basis that motorists are reasonable, I would have been dead a long time ago.

  • Andrew

    Or you can drive a lot faster than 5 mph and keep your eye on the sidewalk as well as on the roadway directly in front of you. Pedestrians don’t materialize out of thin air.

  • Andrew

    If you are not certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that your desired movement does not conflict with a pedestrian’s, then you haven’t yielded to the pedestrian.

    “Yield to pedestrians” doesn’t mean “if you happen to notice a pedestrian, try to avoid hitting him.” It means “pedestrians have legal priority over you at this location, and you need to wait until you’re certain that any pedestrians wishing to cross have done so.”

    If you simply assume that no pedestrians intend to cross, you haven’t yielded.

  • Andrew

    Plain and utter nonsense. It is never legal to drive in excess of the posted or statutory speed limit, regardless of what the police may opt not to enforce, and in some conditions it isn’t even legal to drive as fast as the posted speed limit.

    (The police in my city routinely park their personal vehicles on sidewalks outside their workplaces. That isn’t legal, either. The police don’t write the laws.)

  • Andrew

    On a city street, 35 mph is never to[o] slow (but is usually too fast).

  • Andrew

    If you observe somebody on the sidewalk walking toward a crosswalk, or waiting at the edge of a crosswalk, you can assume that he most likely wishes to cross the street, and, in the absence of traffic signals, you are legally obligated to stop for him to allow him to cross.

    That he wishes to cross the street does not make him a suicidal moron. (Did you expect him to flap his arms and fly over the street?)

  • Andrew

    So for example cyclists could be given a ticket every time they roll through a stop sign, which is pretty much every cyclist at every stop sign.

    Motorists, too. (It’s cute how you ignore that minor detail.)

  • Andrew

    The standard advice when suddenly confronted with an unexpected obstruction of vehicle ahead, when you cannot stop in time, is to swerve right.

    On a highway? Sure. On a city street? Absolutely not.

  • Andrew

    And where exactly do negligence and carelessness fall in your false dichotomy?

    If I walk into Times Square fire a machine gun into the air, with no intent to kill anyone, do I get to call it an accident when I do, in fact, kill someone?

    When trains collide or derail, we don’t refer to them as accidents. Instead, we try to figure out what went wrong and we then take actions to prevent a recurrence.

  • Andrew

    When a truck driver insists on driving too close to me, I slow down, both to encourage him to pass and to reduce the likelihood that he won’t be able to react in time if I have to make an emergency stop.

    Speeding up to escape danger is a very bad idea if there may be pedestrians around.

  • Andrew

    Drivers are held blameless in plenty of cases in which they aren’t actually blameless.

    1) Was the driver aware of a medical condition that impaired his ability to safely operate heavy machinery? How fast was he traveling before the medical emergency struck?

    2) Was the vehicle kept in good mechanical repair up until the moment of failure? Was there any prior indication of a possible failure, and did the driver take that opportunity to stop and investigate? How fast was he traveling before the mechanical failure struck?

    3) Drivers should never assume that everybody else is perfect. And, at least where I live, drivers have a specific requirement to exercise due care in the presence of pedestrians, even pedestrians who themselves are in the wrong.

  • Andrew

    Yet we don’t commonly speak of crane accidents or train accidents or plane accidents. We call them what they are, and we try to figure out what went wrong and how to prevent recurrences.

    Sixteen years ago today, American Airlines flight 587 crashed in the Rockaways. (Yes, crashed, not “had an accident.”) The NTSB investigated and identified a likely cause, and American Airlines responded by changing its training practices.

    Nobody looks up at the sky, to get out of the way just in case another plane crashes. If pedestrians find it necessary to look out for drivers who fail to yield to them, it’s drivers, not pedestrians, who are doing something very wrong.

  • Andrew

    I am driving along and a jogger runs out in front of me without looking. I swerve to avoid him and hit a cyclist.

    When’s the last time that a driver, who was abiding by all laws (not speeding, watching carefully for pedestrians and cyclists, etc.), responded to the sudden appearance of a pedestrian by swerving into a cyclist? How often does it happen?

    How often, on the other hand, are pedestrians and cyclists struck by motorists who are breaking the law?

    Which of these is a real problem that actually kills and injures people every day, and which is a hypothetical problem that rarely if ever comes up? Which do you think is deserving of greater public attention?

  • Andrew

    Due care is obeying all laws and paying attention.

    No it’s not. You’re required to do that even without an explicit due care law.

    Yet, at least where I live, motorists are required to exercise due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian, on top of all of the other laws, and regardless of whether the pedestrian is in the right or in the wrong.

  • GregKamin

    Sure, but the example I cited was an either/or situation. Either I have a head-on collision or I swerve right and hit a cyclist or pedestrian.

  • GregKamin

    I’m just giving you examples of how accidents can happen where the driver is not at fault, since you appear to believe that’s not possible.

  • GregKamin

    Actually there are aircraft accident statistics. Very rarely a plane crash is deliberate, like the German airplane that was deliberately crashed in the Alps by a suicidal pilot.

    I disagree – pedestrians should be aware of their surroundings. It’s safer.

  • GregKamin

    A medical or mechanical failure can be undetectable and still happen.

    I never assume that other drivers are perfect but that does not mean that I can prevent every occasion when another drivers does something wrong. Nor can you. If a vehicle suddenly swings into your path, you may not be able to stop or avoid it. Or in swerving, you may hit somebody or something else

  • GregKamin

    There are situations where it is safer to accelerate, such as in order to pass safely or to pull away from an aggressive tailgater. Slowing down when being tailgated may further infuriate the driver and increase your risk.

  • GregKamin

    Something is an accident if you did not intend it.

    Whether you are at fault, careless or negligent is a different matter

  • GregKamin

    I’m 100% correct, sorry. A head-on crash is the worst possible outcome.

  • GregKamin

    I’m glad you agree they are both equally wrong

  • GregKamin

    It’s the case where the pedestrian is not seen but suddenly jumps out that is the problem

  • GregKamin

    35 is too slow if the prevailing traffic is doing 40 and you’re causing an obstruction. Cops can ticket a driver for going too slow as well as for going too fast.

    More generally, fixed speed limits are flawed – I’d rather see variable limits like in some parts of Europe. Conditions matter

  • GregKamin

    Cops will often allow a leeway of 10% or 10 mph. It’s not as literal a thing as you imply. And the conditions matter too. If all traffic is doing 50 in a 45 zone, the cops won’t cite you for going 50. They might cite you for going 30.

  • GregKamin

    You cannot drive such that everyone on the sidewalk might jump out in front of you at any time without any risk to themselves

  • GregKamin

    That is insufficient to guarantee your safety. On a packed sidewalk anyone could in theory run out into the highway. I’m not going to drive at 5 mph just in case. Not happening.

  • GregKamin

    It’s good that you are an aware pedestrian who looks out and noticed their surroundings. Safer that way.

  • GregKamin

    Again, I can be obeying all laws and still not be able to avoid hitting someone who jumps out right in front of me

  • GregKamin

    If a suicidal person wants to kill themself by throwing themselves in front of a vehicle, then they will succeed even if every driver is obeying all laws and driving carefully

  • GregKamin

    They already are. That doesn’t mean zero enforcement for cyclists

  • GregKamin

    Everyone should obey the law. Any law that is not enforced is effectively not a law at all. What you’re discussing there is enforcement priorities. They exist, but nobody gets a pass either

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