“Distracted Pedestrians”: Distracting from the Real Issues

by Elliot Miciek | June 8, 2020 | in News, Webinars

New Research Shows Misplaced Safety Emphasis

The next time someone points to distracted walking as a reason that more pedestrians are being injured and killed, please fact-check and challenge their assumptions — even if that person is a transportation planner or engineer. Watch the 1-hour webinar here.

An example of pointing the finger of blame at people walking in public “education” campaigns.

As pedestrian deaths rise in the United States — by a shocking 35% between 2008 and 2017 — some have been quick to cite distracted walking as a major contributor. People walking, their argument goes, are too busy looking at or talking on their phones or listening to music to notice oncoming traffic, which can lead to deadly consequences. A look at headlines in the media gives insight into this narrative. In 2016, a journalist in The Philadelphia Inquirer stated that “Nearly two million deaths were related to cell phone use.” And the New York Daily News reported that distracted walking was responsible for a whopping 78% of pedestrian injuries. Even professionals in engineering, urban planning, and public health are often quick to cite distracted walking as a major safety issue.

But not so fast, according to new research. In a May 2020 study out of Rutgers University, Dr. Kelcie Ralph and Ian Girardeau find a significant over-emphasis on the “problem” of distracted walking, based on their analysis of multiple observations, experiments, and dat sets. Their finding? Distracted walking is likely a factor in a relatively small share of crashes, they estimate somewhere between 5% and 10%, and certainly less than 20%.

Evidence suggests that texting, talking on the phone and listening to music have minimal effect on pedestrian behavior. A meta-analysis of all the studies on distracted walking does not show increased risks. In fact, the research shows that these figures pale in comparison to other factors, such as speeding, intoxication, and driver inattention.

Why is this so troubling? 

Another example of dangerous framing the stark rise in pedestrian deaths, focusing on people walking versus unsafe street design, high speeds, and other more severe risks.

The study “Distracted by ‘distracted pedestrians’?” concludes that, amongst transportation system designers, there is a significant gap between perceptions of this problem and what research shows as a much less common or dangerous occurrence. And this disconnect is causing impediments to how we improve safety for people walking, especially for kids, the elderly, and people with vision impairments.

A survey of transportation system designers in the U.S. found that a startling one-third consider distracted walking a “large problem” and estimate this as being responsible for 40% of pedestrian deaths. An additional 50% of practitioners believe distracted walking is still a “small problem,” responsible for roughly 15% of pedestrian deaths. But that’s likely over-stating the facts.

And, importantly, the survey found that transportation practitioners who are concerned about distracted walking prefer individual-level solutions — such as pedestrian education campaigns — over systems-level solutions, which are core to Vision Zero principles — such as reducing speeds and redesigning roadways to be safer. (Learn more about the Safe Systems approach that underpins Vision Zero.)

This is particularly troubling because transportation practitioners are, as the study states, “uniquely positioned to make systematic changes to improve safety.”

The research continues:

“By prioritizing educational campaigns — which cost little but are largely ineffective — over proven countermeasures like speed reduction and pedestrian infrastructure, practitioners will save fewer lives. Moreover, educational campaigns that chastise pedestrians will do nothing to create safer streets for children, the elderly, or people with vision impairments, each of whom experience challenges similar to the effects of distraction. If we want to make streets safe for all users, we cannot allow educational campaigns to be the centerpiece of our strategy.”

What are the Real Dangers? 

This misplaced focus on distracted walking as a significant problem is harmful because it normalizes the idea that pedestrians are to blame for their deaths. Yep, old-fashioned victim blaming. (Read more about moving from victim blaming to solutions, thanks to Pedal Love.)

The study points to other factors as far more instrumental to the rise in pedestrian deaths, including the fact that more people are moving to places that are riskier to walk. It cites research from 2017 showing that the 10 fastest growing states in the U.S. had 40% more pedestrian fatalities per person and 79% higher values on the Pedestrian Danger Index than the remaining 40 states.

Another major factor is the significant rise in the use of SUVs, an increase of 37% between 2009 and 2016, according to research. And SUVs are associated with significantly higher risks for people walking.  

Who’s Over-Emphasizing the Issue? 

Over-emphasizing education campaigns takes energy and resources from real safety solutions, such as re-designing roadways to be safer for all users. Image from Halsey-Weidler Streetscape Project in Portland, Oregon.

As shown in the survey referenced earlier, transportation planners are prone to give too much weight to the “problem” of distracted walking. The study shares that this may be because focusing on education strategies to caution pedestrians is far cheaper and easier than more in-depth and proven strategies, such as reducing speeds, increasing enforcement, or changing street design. Dr. Ralph and Girardeau believe that the idea of the distracted pedestrian remains widespread because it is simple, observable, and certain groups have an interest in promoting it. Distracted walking is “certainly more intuitive than more complex ideas about pedestrian safety,” states the study.

As the research states: “Viewed as a problem of distracted walking, the changes required to save lives are superficial, not foundational. The underlying systems can remain intact, absolving practitioners from the need to rethink values, priorities, and funding structures.”

(Find out more on our blog featuring a Washington State Dept. of Transportation official discussing the state’s work to shift to a Safe Systems approach.)

Similarly, the news media gives distracted walking disproportionate coverage, the study finds, because “reporters—in their quest for newsworthiness—have an incentive to cover unique incidents and new research findings.” (More here from the Berkeley Media Studies Group)

The automotive industry also benefits by framing the conversation around distracted walking because, as the study explains, “focusing on the behaviors of pesky pedestrians helps absolve the industry of responsibility, much like the invention of jaywalking in the 1920s.” (Read more about this relevant history .)

Among transportation system designers, the study asserts, the idea gains traction because of windshield bias — “the phenomena where people who primarily experience the roadway from a vehicle tend to frame problems differently than those who primarily experience the city on foot, by bike, or by transit.” Thus, people who drive a car as their primary mode of transportation tend to be more concerned about (and blaming of) distracted walking than other activities, such as speeding, distracted driving, or poorly designed roads.

All of this, of course, shapes how we all think of the problem — and the solutions. And this includes decisionmakers who directly influence safety strategies. The research points to examples in places including Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Delaware, where pedestrian safety enforcement blitzes resulted in police issuing the majority of warnings and tickets to people walking rather than those driving.

Some cities have outlawed distracted walking and punished violators with fines, which means that communities where people walk more, such as low-income people and people of color, will receive disproportionate enforcement attention, which can lead to serious unintended consequences.

The research laments this misguided attention on distracted walking because it lessens attention toward more effective safety solutions, particularly system-level solutions, including reducing speeds and providing safer designs for people walking and rating cars for crashworthiness for people outside the vehicle. 

The research finds:

“Most importantly, the distracted walking frame does indeed shape policy solutions. Concern about distracted walking detracts attention from more deadly risk factors, more effective policy approaches, and, most importantly, is inconsistent with the ethos of making streets safe for all users, including children, the elderly, and vision impaired people. Instead of focusing on educational campaigns, practitioners should focus their pedestrian safety efforts on the biggest risk factors and the most effective solutions.”

How Do We Change these Dangerous Misperceptions? 

First, we can all help debunk the misconception that distracted walking is a leading factor in pedestrian deaths and severe injuries. While acknowledging that it is a relatively small part of the problem, we can help shift policy and design strategies toward what will be more helpful, including lowering vehicle speeds, building safer environments for all, and ensuring cars are not built-to-kill.

From a 2019 campaign in Colorado. Eyes literally on the street?

This includes being clear that continuing to over-emphasize the low-hanging fruit of educational campaigns for pedestrians is neither effective nor fair. Solutions need to be focused on the biggest risk factors. Enough with the victim-blaming.

We can help counteract windshield bias by inviting transportation system designers (engineers and planners), as well as policymakers public health officials and police officers to participate in walking audits and on-the-ground experience of pedestrian conditions. And we can diversify decision-making bodies to include people who move about in ways other than just driving, including walking, biking, and riding transit.

Also transportation practitioners can reframe crash analysis — which is critical to understanding problems and solutions — to focus less on who or what gets hit, and more on who or what did the hitting and why.

We can probably all agree that we want to find what works to ensure safety for people moving about on our sidewalks, bikeways and streets. Part of this must be calling out misleading information and victim-blaming too often used to frame the problem, and instead focus on effective solutions.


Vision Zero Network expresses our gratitude to Dr. Kelcie Ralph and Ian Girardeau, the researchers who focused on this important issue. And we urge Vision Zero champions to use this knowledge to make positive change in our communities. Read the full research findings here.

Watch the June 30th webinar on this issue with Dr. Kelcie Ralph.

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