Distracted Walking: A Global Epidemic

By Courtney Murtagh, Tracy Zafian, and Matt Mann, UMTC Research Staff

Most of us are aware of the dangers of distracted driving, but distracted walking? Around the world and close to home, it’s a growing epidemic. More and more people are texting and using their phones while walking in intersections, creating unsafe situations.

distracted_peds_source_Premier_Insurance_Corp
source: Premier Insurance Corporation

A 2017 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that pedestrian roadway deaths in the US are now at their highest level in over 20 years, with more than 6,000 pedestrian fatalities in 2016. An article in the May 2017 MassDOT Innovative Outlook, discussed a number of contributing factors for this, including: more driving; alcohol use by drivers and pedestrians; lack of pedestrian visibility; and driver and pedestrian distractions.

Dr. Cole Fitzpatrick, a UMTC Affiliate Researcher, recently conducted a field study on the prevalence of distracted walking and its effect on driver behavior. The study included observations of a total of 1,386 pedestrian crossings and 890 pedestrian-vehicle interactions at seven different crosswalks on the UMass Amherst campus. The researchers found that nearly half of all pedestrians were distracted while crossing the street, with 22% of them talking to another person beside them, 16% using headphones, and 10% either texting or talking on their phones.

Cities have begun to take notice of distracted walkers and are looking for ways to improve intersection and crosswalk safety. In October 2017, Honolulu enacted a law allowing pedestrians who text on their phones while crossing the street to be fined $15 to $99 for doing so.  This new law is thought to be the first such law of its kind in the country. Prior to October,  Honolulu had more pedestrians being hit  by vehicles in crosswalks, than any other major US City. Local high school students were instrumental in pushing for this law. Kel Hirohata, a local high school teacher interviewed on National Public Radio recently, described how the Youth for Safety club at Waipahu High School spent more than a week watching fellow students as they left school. They noticed an alarming trend: many of their classmates staring at their phones while crossing the street. The Safety club members took note of the potential danger, and then followed up with a local councilmember who wrote a bill which then became the new law.

Legislators in other places have also proposed laws to curb texting while walking. In San Mateo County, California, County board members unanimously voted in favor of a resolution in September 2017 asking state lawmakers to pass a law banning cell phone use in crosswalks. Stamford, Connecticut is now considering an ordinance that would ban cell phone talking or texting while crossing the street and impose a $30 fine for offenders. In September 2017, New York State passed a law requiring the New York City Transportation Department to study and report on its efforts to educate drivers and walkers about the dangers of pedestrians distracted by cell phones.  In Massachusetts a bill was introduced this November to ban texting while jaywalking. No action has yet been taken on this proposed legislation.

It’s not just in the United States that officials are looking into distracted walking. Bodegraven, Amsterdam for example installed lights in the ground near crosswalks that would change colors with the traffic lights, so people looking down on their phones would be more aware of the nearby traffic and when it’s safe to cross.

LED_sidewalk_lights_in_Amsterdam_Lichtlijn-Foto-Gemeente-Bodegraven_source_www_omroepwest_nl
LED sidewalk lights in Amsterdam. Source: http://www.omroepwest.nl

 

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Safety First! Are You a Distracted Driver or a Distracted Pedestrian?

By Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

The annual number of pedestrians hit and killed by vehicles in the United States is now at its highest level in more than 20 years. In March 2017, the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released a report showing an 11 percent increase rise in the number of pedestrian deaths between 2015 and 2016, and a 25 percent increase in these deaths over the past five years. The report estimates there were almost 6,000 pedestrian fatalities in 2016 and pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all traffic deaths. The rise in pedestrian fatalities from 2015 to 2016 was the highest annual increase in both the total number and percentage growth in the 40 years that these national data have been recorded.

The GHSA figures are calculated based on pedestrian fatalities for January to June 2016 and then extrapolated for the rest of the year. For this six-month period, 2,660 pedestrians died in traffic crashes nationwide.

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Source: Seattle Tim

Four states accounted for 43 percent of these fatalities: California (405 pedestrian deaths); Florida (277); Texas (242); and NewYork (137). Massachusetts had 38 pedestrian deaths in this time frame( 1.4 percent of the total).

The GHSA identified several factors that could be contributing to the rise in pedestrian deaths, including the following.

  • More driving. People are driving more now, with the economy improving and gas prices down from their historic high levels ($4+/gallon) earlier this decade. Federal Highway Administration data released in February 2017 show that in 2016, people in cars, minivans, SUVs, and trucks drove a record 3.22 trillion miles on the nation’s roads and highways. This is an increase of 3 percent over 2015, and the fifth straight year of increased total mileage.
  • Alcohol. According to the GHSA report, 15 percent of pedestrian taffic deaths involve a drunk driver, and 34 percent of the pedestrians killed in traffic accidents themselves have blood alcohol levels above the legal limit of 0.08.
  • Lack of pedestrian visibility. Many of the pedestrian fatalities occurred in conditions where the pedestrians may not be very visible to drivers. The GHSA found that 74 percent of pedestrian deaths occurred at night, and 72 percent of those killed were not at a roadway intersection.
  • In recent years, as cell phones and other portable communication and entertainment devices have become more ubiquitous, there has been an increase in crashes and injuries attributed to distraction. Drive distraction is considered one of the top three causes of traffic fatalities in general—the other top causes are alcohol and vehicle speed—and one of three main causes for pedestrian fatalities. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that driver distraction contributed to 3,477 traffic crash-related deaths and 391,000 injuries in 2015. As discussed in a recent National Public Radio piece, there are also concerns about the impact of pedestrians’ own distractions on pedestrian safety

A comprehensive research literature review on the impact of electronic device use on pedestrian safety was conducted by Robert Scopatz and Yuying Zhou (2016). The literature review was part of a larger research project examining whether electronic device use by drivers and pedestrians significantly affects pedestrian safety. The literature review included sections on distracted pedestrians, distracted drivers, and pedestrian-driver interactions, and examined real-world studies, simulator studies, and other collected data in these three areas. There have been no studies thus far showing a direct cause-and-effect link between distraction and pedestrian crash risk. Nonetheless, there is clear evidence that distracted drivers face increased crash risks and that distraction impacts how pedestrians walk, react, and behave, including safety-related behaviors

Scopatz and Zhou found only one study (Brumfield and Pulugurtha, 2011) to date that examined pedestrian-vehicle conflicts and the role of distraction due to handheld electronic device use. That study’s researchers observed 325 pedestrian-vehicle interactions at seven midblock crosswalks on a university campus in Charlotte, North Carolina. They found that 29 percent of pedestrians and 18 percent of drivers were noticeably distracted (talking on a cell phone or texting) at the time the pedestrian and vehicle were nearing the crosswalk. Further, the researchers calculated that distracted drivers were more than three times more likely to be involved in a conflict at the midblock crosswalks than distracted pedestrians. Government legislators in Montreal, Quebec, and New Jersey have proposed banning cell phone texting for pedestrians while they are crossing the street. These proposals have not received much support thus far.

Research is needed to dig deeper into the issues around pedestrian fatalities with specific focus on distraction.

Some key questions remain:

  • How distractions (for drivers and pedestrians) exacerbated by hazards that are already present?
  • With the encouragement of Bicycling and Pedestrian activity for healthy communities, how will this impact the grown problem?
  • What type of solutions are States considering for solutions? One recent report published in March of 2017,  Consensus Recommendations for Pedestrian Injury Surveillance aims to offer guidance in tracking, recording and prevention.

Affiliate Researcher, Karin Goins, UMass Medical, provided input for this article. 

 

Are Pedestrian Fatalities Related to Income and Race?

Pedestrian fatalities in the United States rose by 25 percent over the past 5 years, according to a 2017 report by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). As pedestrian fatalities have increased, some populations are more at risk than others.

Dangerous by Design 2016, an analysis by Smart Growth America (SGA) of pedestrian fatalities over a 10-year period (2005–2014), looked at data from the 104 largest metro areas in the United States and for each state, by income and by race. This analysis found that the poorer a metro area is, the more likely that pedestrians are to be hit and killed by a motor vehicle. There are a number of contributing factors to this finding. For one, poorer communities and neighborhoods typically have less road infrastructure to support pedestrian safety than more affluent places, including fewer safe, well-maintained sidewalks with adequate night lighting, fewer safe mid-block and intersection crosswalks, and fewer traffic calming measures such as narrow roads and speed humps. Additionally, residents in poorer communities and neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, have lower levels of car ownership and more dependence on walking and transit. This leads them to walk more frequently and makes them more likely to walk to destinations that are not considered pedestrian friendly, such as big shopping centers and along high traffic volume roadways with little pedestrian infrastructure.

peds_IO

Source: Transportation for America.

SGA’s research found connections between pedestrian deaths and median household income and also between pedestrian deaths and race. People of color were overrepresented among pedestrian families in 42 of 49 states and the District of Columbia, and for the United States as a whole. Overall, people of color comprised just over one-third of the U.S. population but almost half of the pedestrian deaths. The greatest proportional risks were for African Americans, with 12 percent of the population and 19 percent of pedestrian deaths, and for Native Americans, with 0.7 percent of the population and close to 3 percent of the deaths. The racial disparities were especially dramatic in some states. In Louisiana, people of color were nine times more likely to be killed than white people, and in Texas, the risk was almost three times as great. In Massachusetts, the risk was only slightly elevated; people of color comprised 22 percent of the state population and 24 percent of the pedestrian fatalities.

Graph_IO

Source: Smart Growth America, Dangerous by Design 2016.

As with the income-based findings on pedestrian fatalities, the race-related findings reflect the fact that, as with low-income communities, communities comprising mainly people of color have more residents without car access who walk for transportation and they walk more often and for longer distances. However, SGA found that even after controlling for their residents’ amount of walking, these communities still had higher rates of pedestrian deaths. This suggests that these communities have disproportionately unsafe conditions for pedestrians

To date, only a few experimental studies have been conducted on-road to measure the likelihood of drivers’ responses yielding to pedestrians of different races. The first such study took place at a midblock marked crosswalk in downtown Portland, Oregon, and was conducted by Tara Goddard and Kimberly Barsamian Kahn, both from Portland State University, and Arlie Adkins from the University of Arizona (2016). For this research, individual male pedestrian participants, who were all clearly identifiable as either African American or white, stood at the edge of the crosswalk, looking as though they’d like to cross. The researchers measured the number of cars that passed each pedestrian before a driver stopped at the crosswalk for them, and the amount of time each pedestrian had to wait to cross. Each of the six pedestrian participants—three white and three African American—were of similar build, wore similar clothing, and were instructed to behave similarly. The researchers observed a total of 173 driver-pedestrian interactions. On average, the African American pedestrians waited 32 percent longer and were passed by twice as many cars before crossing, as compared to the white pedestrians.

University of Nevada researcher Courtney Coughenour and colleagues conducted a similar study in Las Vegas. As she described in a discussion earlier this year with National Public Radio correspondent Shankar Vedantam, for their study, the researchers included two different midblock crosswalks, one in a low-income neighborhood and one in a high-income neighborhood, and two female pedestrian participants, one white and one African American. The pedestrians were both of similar build, wore identical outfits, and acted similarly while they waited at the edge of the crosswalk for drivers to stop for them. The midblock crosswalks were on multilane roads. The researchers measured both the number of cars that passed in the nearest lane before stopping for the pedestrian and the number of cars that drove around the pedestrian while they were crossing the street. In total, 124 pedestrian crossings were observed for the two crosswalks. Overall, drivers were less likely to stop for the pedestrians waiting to cross at the high-income crosswalk than the low-income one, regardless of race. At the high-income crosswalk, once the pedestrian was in the roadway, drivers were statistically more likely to pass through the crosswalk and not yield to the African American pedestrian than they were with the white pedestrian. Drivers were also less likely to yield to the African American pedestrian at the high-income crosswalk than at the low-income crosswalk. One contributing factor to these results could be that the high-income crosswalk was on a street with more travel lanes and a higher posted speed limit, 45 mph, than the street with the low-income crosswalk, 35 mph.

In both crosswalk-pedestrian race studies, no information was collected on any of the drivers, such as their race, income, or how they made their decision on whether or not to stop for pedestrians at the crosswalks. Nonetheless, it appears that some drivers could have some race or class-related conscious or unconscious biases in this regard. Of most concern from a safety perspective is drivers’ failure to yield to African American pedestrians already crossing the street in the high-income neighborhood in the Las Vegas study. The failure of drivers to yield at multilane midblock crosswalks is a known cause of many pedestrian fatalities and injuries, and the results here suggest driver biases could put some pedestrians more at risk than others.

 

Written By: Tracy Zafian, UMTC Research Fellow

Norwegian Schoolchildren: The “secret agent” in improving traffic and pedestrian safety

By Adrian  Ayala, UMTC Research Staff

When it comes to urban planning, the group of citizens with the least political clout in discussions regarding the future of our cities is often the same group whose voices need to be heard the most – children.

kids_app

In order to promote safe walking to school and to alleviate parents’ fears along the route, the city of Oslo, Norway has developed a cutting edge crowdsourced gaming application that allows for direct input from schoolchildren. Oslo’s 44,000 schoolchildren are the city’s most active group of walkers, and thus, their input is essential in improving roads and increasing traffic security. Created by the Agency of the Urban Environment alongside the Norwegian Center for Transportation Research, “Traffic Agent” targets school children on their walk to school, and by using a game design, they receive large amounts of data on the condition of roads and the safety of the users of urban infrastructure.

The application uses GPS in order to collect data on children’s travel patterns, as well as allowing schoolchildren to report dangerous and favorable spots along the way. Some characteristics of the walking route that the users can report are “heavy/low traffic”, “high speed vehicles”, “poor visibility”, “lack of sidewalk,” among others. The GPS capabilities of the app are particularly gps_appuseful for the municipality of Oslo, as they can precisely locate areas in which better safety measures are needed. This will allow them to add better lighting, road maintenance, additional street signs, and law enforcement to the areas in need.

The application also works directly with the Oslo public schools and through a special website designed for instructors, the students are given an anonymous code which allows them to access the app and report dangers along the way to school. Throughout the design of the app, anonymity of minors was of utmost concern, and through working collaboratively with the schools, the children’s identities can be protected. The data collected is only visible to the school and the federal project team. Furthermore, the teacher can access the data and discuss with their class on ways to arrive to school safer.

The gaming aspect of the app revolves around children being “secret agents” on the lookout for hazards. The interface features lively animations and an “agent’s” voice, in order to help children who are not yet at the proper reading level to utilize the app’s menu without additional help. The app allows the children to choose sex, transport method, and who they travel with (parent, classmates, other adults/older children). At the end of their route, they are asked to submit their trip to “headquarters” and are then congratulated for their efforts in keeping the city safe.

interface_app

The Traffic Agent app is one of many in terms of Norway’s efforts to improve pedestrian safety, move towards greater sustainability and decrease the use of cars. The city government also plans to use the app’s data to move their goal of banning private vehicles in the city center by 2019 forward. To try the app, one can search “Trafikkargenten” in the iOS or Android store, and log in using agent code 4320771.