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.

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. Source: http://www.omroepwest.nl


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.

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.