Monday, September 23, 2019

Debunking the myth of "distracted walking"

A pedestrian crossed Plymouth Road at a RRFB, photo by Erich Z. 

At the July 29th Pedestrian Safety meeting at City Hall, several people made statements that went along these lines:

Drivers bear some responsibility for pedestrian safety. Pedestrians also bear responsibility. Distracted driving and distracted walking are contributing to crashes and as a community, we need to address both these issues.
To be clear, I am paraphrasing, but there were several people who spoke who brought forth the specter of distracted walking. Intuitively, this argument didn't quite sit right with me. My general thought process was something like what follows. A fast-moving pedestrian is six times slower than a slow-moving car. If you are reading a book or looking at your phone while walking, it is easy to detect changes in your environment by glancing up and using your peripheral vision. Human reaction time is generally sufficient to deal with most scenarios we encounter while walking, even when we are distracted. On the other hand, in a car, your audio and visual perception is limited and you are traveling much more quickly. It does not seem like distracted walking would be a significant contributor to the problem of drivers striking pedestrians with their automobiles.

After that meeting though, I didn't think much of the issue of distracted walking. That is, until this weekend when I found a recent New York City Department of Transportation (NYDOT) report investigating the phenomenon of distracted walking. Here's the full report. Here is a quote from the first page: In short, despite growing concerns, DOT found little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries. The emphasis comes from the report, gentle readers. Here's a great table from the report that looks at National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data from 2010 - 2015.

You can see that pedestrians using electronic devices are implicated in a vanishingly small fraction of crashes that result in pedestrian fatalities nationally. NYDOT also looked at data from New York City and found a similar pattern:

Records show two cases (0.2%) in which there was electronic device involvement, of 856 with available narratives. One pedestrian fatality in 2015 involved a pedestrian who was texting, and one fatality in 2014 involved a person reaching for a dropped mobile device. This lack of reported pedestrian device involvement is notable, as the crash reports rely largely on drivers’ accounts. In comparison, from 2014-2017, there were 112 pedestrian fatalities where vehicles failed to yield to pedestrians with the right of way (13%).
As for pedestrian injury, NHTSA data estimate that pedestrian use of electronic devices plays a slightly larger role in car crashes that result in pedestrian injury, than in crashes that result in pedestrian fatality. Depending on the year, somewhere between 2% and 4% of crashes that injure pedestrians implicated pedestrian use of electronic devices. This is still a very small percentage of the total number of car crashes where pedestrians are injured.

"Distracted walking" is not a thing. By that I mean it is not a phenomenon that contributes to a large number of instances where drivers strike pedestrians with their automobiles. I want to take this a step further and say that in matters of pedestrian safety, the responsibility for making sure all parties arrive to their destination needs to be apportioned proportionately to each party's ability to cause harm. A person driving a 3300 lb car 25 mph can do much more harm to a 180 lb pedestrian walking a brisk 3.5 mph, than that pedestrian can do to that driver. Distracted driving is a cause of crashes that injure and kill pedestrians. "Distracted walking" does not contribute to a meaningful proportion of pedestrian fatalities or injuries. It would be irresponsible for us to take pedestrian use of electronic devices into account in Ann Arbor's current push towards zero pedestrian fatalities. Instead we should focus on proven measures that increase pedestrian safety including slowing cars down and making sure all streets have sidewalks on both sides.


  1. You said a person perceives their environment and can get away from a car. Wrong. A person cannot walk fast enough to get out of the way of a car going even 50 mph if the person is in the road. Too many people crossing A2 streets simply step out into the street and expect cars to stop for them. They do not make sure a car is indeed obeying the traffic law and stopping to let them cross before they enter the road. As for comparing A2 to NYC, you can't take a report from NYC and apply it to A2. Too many variables and different amounts of people, cars, and traffic speeds. NYC may not have marked walkways where cars are expected to suddenly stop and let someone cross. There are a lot of traffic light affected crossings. Your point really seems to say that pedestrians are not the problem but I think they are. But why dismiss such concerns? More responsibility on pedestrians is needed. But that doesn't mean A2 shouldn't improve cross walks. All should have lights that stop traffic instead of leaving the driver and pedestrian guessing as to who will do what.

  2. Hi Joanne,

    Thanks so much for your comment. I think it's important to note, that while the study is from the NY Department of Transportation, the primary data used is national data from the NHTSA--so it is looking at data from all across the country.

    Respectfully, I would like to push back a little at your statement that "Your point really seems to say that pedestrians are not the problem but I think they are." That is exactly my point. I believe I supported it with evidence. I am really curious to hear more about why you think that pedestrians are the problem?

    To elaborate, I do not believe pedestrians need to be more responsible (in this narrow sense of not looking at electronic devices), as there is not evidence that this activity is contributing to accidents. There is evidence that drivers and speeding (and speed generally) cause a lot of injuries to pedestrians. I think as we evaluate policy solutions to this issue, we should use the best evidence available to make the decision.