Research: Distracted pedestrians may not be the issue; the emphasis on distracted walking is itself a distraction

February 1, 2021

For more information or to speak with a Bloustein School faculty member about their research, please contact Marcia Hannigan (848) 932-2828.

Bloustein School assistant professor Kelcie Ralph and Ian Girardeau MCRP ‘19 recently examined perceptions and misconceptions regarding ‘distracted walking’, an idea that gained prominence as pedestrian deaths increased 35% between 2008 to 2017.

Dr. Ralph works to identify and correct common misperceptions about travel behavior and safety to improve transportation planning outcomes in her research. Mr. Girardeau, an alumnus of the Bloustein School, is a Transportation Planner / Civil Associate I at Michael Baker International.

The authors began by reviewing the literature on distracted walking. They find that while distraction is certainly widespread, the most common form—listening to music—was not associated with higher crash risk. Even when it comes to the safety risks of texting or talking on the phone, the evidence is far from damning.

Contrary to their portrayal as reckless rule-breakers, distracted pedestrians were more likely to cross with the light and use the crosswalk. Similarly, while distracted walkers did indeed take longer to identify gaps in traffic, this is a form of compensatory behavior that reduces risk. Finally, while it is true that distracted pedestrians walk more slowly, the magnitude of the slowdown is fairly minor, roughly on par with being middle-aged. Experiments in virtual environments did provide some evidence that distracted walkers may be more likely to be hit, but the authors caution about extrapolating these results because the stakes in a simulation are low and pedestrians are instructed to cross distracted.  

The authors explored additional reasons to doubt the predominant role of distraction. They posit that if distracted walking were the driving force, then pedestrian deaths should have risen most among young people and in areas with tech-obsessed pedestrians. Neither was true. Instead, pedestrian deaths increased most for the elderly, while holding steady and even declining for younger cohorts.

Similarly, the risks to pedestrians were lowest in tech centers (San Francisco, New York, and Seattle) and in college towns (Madison, Wisc.). Instead, pedestrian risks were highest in several metropolitan areas of Florida that are known more for their inhospitable streetscapes than their distracted walkers.

The authors point to two alternative culprits for the rise in pedestrian deaths: distracted driving and SUVs, both of which are incredibly deadly and have become more prevalent over time.

Despite this weak evidence base and plausible alternative explanations, the authors find that many transportation practitioners worry about distracted walking. This was especially true among those who primarily rely on a car and spend little time in pedestrian areas. Similarly, engineers and public health experts were more likely to worry than planners.

These findings about the prevalence of concern are important because of framing effects. The way in which a practitioner frames an issue profoundly shapes how she goes about solving it.  Specifically, when asked to prioritize approaches for improving pedestrian safety, those who worried about distracted walking prioritized education campaigns and were less likely to embrace systematic solutions like reducing speeds or reconfiguring street space. 

Ultimately, the authors argue that the emphasis on distracted walking is itself a distraction. It lacks strong evidence and leads practitioners to embrace solutions that are ineffective and inequitable. 

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