How dangerous is distracted walking really?

August 21, 2015 | 0 Comments
distracted walking

A study finds that it’s tough to tell when distracted walking actually impacts injuries and fatalities. Image from UltraSlo1.

Here’s a modern problem if ever there was one: Distracted walking. Walking is one of the simpler activities that most able-bodied homo sapiens are capable of doing, and we’ve managed to start doing it wrong.

Distracted driving is the subject of innumerable PSAs and campaigns — for good reason. Distracted driving deserves every bit of attention that it receives. Distracted walking, however, is less of a focus. And while the whole idea of distracted walking draws some jeers and chuckles, some experts think it has serious consequences.

A recent study published in the Journal of Traffic and Transportation Engineering explored the ramifications of distracted walking. And there are many. While walkers have always multitasked, such as chatting to a fellow walker, snacking, or listening to music while walking, smartphones have amplified the distraction factor.

The study’s authors note that current pedestrian crash data don’t provide enough information to be able reach concrete conclusions about how frequently distracted walking leads to accidents, injuries, and fatalities. And, yet, a literature review indicates that “there is a positive correlation between distraction and unsafe walking behavior,” and the study authors feel confident claiming that distracted walking “has caused fatalities and injuries worldwide.”

Some transportation agencies have started formalizing policies in opposition to distracted walking. For example, in 2012, the Utah Transit Authority prohibited people from crossing train tracks on foot while distracted, and violators were subject to fines of $50 for a first offense and $100 for repeat offenses.

Crossing a train track while distracted is a fairly egregious example of distracted walking, but few examples exist of effective policies that target the practice of walking down a sidewalk or crossing a street while distracted. It’s simply not on the books yet, perhaps because insufficient crash data has been collected to quantify the problem.

While citations aren’t commonplace yet, campaigns against distracted walking are becoming increasingly common. Delaware has a campaign that includes decals placed at non-crosswalk locations that read: “Don’t join the walking dead.”

Philadelphia went so far as to play a practical joke on distracted pedestrians, temporarily painting an “E-Lane” (Electronic Device Lane) on part of a sidewalk. While it was intended as a joke, officials reported that people actually used the lane while buried in their phones.

Unfortunately for anti-distracted walking advocates, the lack of crash data limits the potency of many of these campaigns, and it also limits the potency of potential bills that would criminalize distracted walking. The study’s authors note that isolated newspaper reports of incidents in which a distracted pedestrian is hit and killed are nearly the only “official” record of the problem.

As to the question: How dangerous is distracted walking, really? The answer is vague, at best. Experimental studies show that distracted walkers are more likely to ignore traffic signs, cross at non-crosswalks, and miss obvious elements of their surroundings (such as oncoming cars). Obviously, this all adds up to a recipe for a crash. But it’s also hard to distinguish so-called “distracted walking” from irresponsible driving; since pedestrians are unlikely to hurt anyone but themselves, but drivers are in possession of two-ton devices far more dangerous than cell phones, the question of who’s responsible in case of a crash becomes even more of a judgment call on authorities’ parts.

Until we start to track these types of crashes with more regularity, the best we — and this study’s authors — can do is advise that it’s probably better to walk un-distracted when possible.

Category: Miscellaneous

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