July 13, 2020 BY Leah Shahumin News, Safety Over Speed, Webinars

Webinar Recap: Don’t be Distracted by Distracted Walking 

The Vision Zero Network was pleased to host a webinar on June 30, 2020 featuring Dr. Kelcie Ralph, assistant professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, sharing new research on distracted walking, which she conducted along with her colleague Ian Girardeau.

Image courtesy of Complete Streets Coalition

While acknowledging that people do, at times, walk distracted, this new research shows that there is little evidence that “distracted walking” causes significant dangers. Yet, many influential stakeholders, including transportation planning/engineering professionals, inaccurately perceive distracted walking to be a major problem, detracting attention from more problematic risk factors and more effective solutions. Some of our most vulnerable community members -- including children, the elderly, and vision impaired people -- are most likely to suffer from this distraction of distracted walking.

Read the Vision Zero Network’s full-length summary of this important research, and our briefer webinar summary below. Also, read Dr. Ralph’s important -- and quite accessible -- research findings. In addition, the New York City Department of Transportation’s extensive analysis in 2019 also found little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries in NYC, despite growing perceptions otherwise.

There is Little Evidence that Distracted Walking is Harmful

Dr. Ralph began the webinar by summarizing the research that exists on this topic, showing significant limitations on how the studies were conducted, including challenges in the data assumptions and findings. Contrary to many perceptions, Ralph explains, there is a “dearth of evidence that distracted walking causes serious problems.”

A few examples: people who use headphones while walking are considered to be “distracted”, but studies do not find significant effects on their safety. And people texting and talking on the phone while walking are actually more likely to stay within the crosswalk. In these cases, people may be compensating for their distraction by waiting for larger gaps in traffic.

There seems to be a notable amount of media hype and publication bias surrounding the idea of distracted walking being a notable problem, particularly amongst some industries (such as automakers) who have a vested interest in deflecting from driving-related threats. Think we’re exaggerating? Here are just a few examples of massive over-amplification of the issue, including by former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in 2013 (covered by the L.A. Times) to the American Physical Therapy Association in 2018 (covered by CNN) to this high-strung 2019 N.Y. Times piece that admits that “Distracted walking is a relatively new area of research. There have been few studies to show the consequences of what the behavior can lead to. And some of the studies conflict with one another.”

Instead, she points our attention to the more worrying threats to safety: more people driving, more SUVs on the roads, widespread distracted driving, and more Americans moving to places with less safe road conditions, such as poor road design, missing sidewalks, and less crossing time for pedestrians. (Read more about this in our prior blog summary.)

Despite Weak Evidence, Many Practitioners Over-Emphasize Distracted Walking

In addition to analyzing past research on the subject, Dr. Ralph conducted surveys amongst transportation practitioners to understand how this important stakeholder group perceives distracted walking issues.

The surveys found that one-third of transportation practitioners believe that distracted walking is a large problem: they estimated it as the cause of nearly 40% of pedestrian deaths. Within that group, half (one-sixth of the total survey) believed that 50% of pedestrian deaths were caused by pedestrian distraction. One in ten people surveyed estimated that over 75% of pedestrian deaths were due to distracted walking. Even though the evidence is severely lacking, this belief has strongly taken hold in the minds of many practitioners.

Dr. Ralph research points to windshield bias as playing a strong role in over-emphasizing the significance of distracted walking. Windshield bias is when people who primarily travel by car view issues from their perspective as drivers and are much more likely to be concerned that distracted walking is a very problematic issue, versus other, more significant problem areas. This distortion is concerning because it shows that many people making policy and design decisions are focused on the wrong issues. “How we frame problems matters immensely for how we deal with them,” Ralph explains.

Worrying about Distracted Walking is Harmful

The research shows that transportation practitioners who believe distracted walking is a significant safety problem are more likely to favor individual-level solutions — such as pedestrian education campaigns — over more effective systems-level solutions, which are core to Vision Zero principles — such as reducing speeds and redesigning roadways to be safer.

This results in precious energy and resources dedicated to issues and strategies that are less helpful in improving safety than more pressing, truly dangerous issues, such as high speed-, drunk, and distracted driving.

The misguided distracted walking narrative wrongly suggests that we can leave the fundamental structures (roadway designs and policies) in place, and, instead, save lives by making superficial changes. As Ralph explains, the distracted walking narrative “narrows the call to action” to safety. For example, prioritizing low-cost but largely ineffective educational campaigns, rather than proven countermeasures such as managing speed and building better pedestrian infrastructure, practitioners will save fewer lives.

Moreover, our most vulnerable road users are particularly negatively impacted by this overblown distracted walking narrative. The study explains: “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.” Case in point: communities such as Honolulu have passed distracted walking laws, while more are or have considered doing so.

Final Advice: Zoom Out

Dr. Ralph ended the webinar by cautioning against the illusory truth effect: In short, just because we continuously hear about distracted walking (in the media and amongst some transportation agencies), does not mean that it is actually a severe problem compared to other dangers.

She advised participants to zoom out to see the bigger picture and focus on the most pressing problems and promising solutions -- sharing concrete examples of ways to connect the dots between seemingly isolated incidents to show the need for more holistic systems-level changes. We’re naturally inclined toward the ‘villain vs. victim’ framing, Ralph explains, rather than zooming out and looking at the underlying issues, such as the high-speed environments we’ve built and which need to be redesigned.

She also urged against victim-blaming pedestrians and avoiding the false equivalence that drivers and pedestrians are equally responsible for crashes -- sharing examples of many cities’ safety programs falling into these traps. The responsibility for safety and caution should rest more heavily on those driving motor vehicles because their distraction is far more dangerous to others than people walking.

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