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Why the ‘distracted pedestrian’ is a myth

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Most walkers are not texting when crossing streets, says a new study

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Pedestrian deaths have hit a three-decade high in the U.S., prompting some cities to mount campaigns warning walkers to put down their phones and pay more attention. But some compelling new research reveals that pedestrians probably aren’t texting themselves to death.

While the term “distracted walking” has become a way to pin the blame on pedestrians for supposedly looking at their devices instead of the sidewalk, there hasn’t been much evidence provided to prove smartphone-using walkers are at fault when collisions occur. In fact, most states don’t even include pedestrian behavior as a factor in crash reports.

But a new study published by a group of Northern Arizona University engineering professors in Transportation Research Record looked at how 3,038 people used crosswalks in New York City and Flagstaff, Arizona, and concluded that a large majority of pedestrians—86.5 percent—did not exhibit “distracted” behavior.

What’s more, a majority of pedestrians, distracted or not, did not commit violations which might make a crash more likely. Only 16 percent of all walkers traveled outside the crosswalk and 23 percent crossed in the absence of a “Walk” signal, either while “Don’t Walk” was illuminated or flashing a countdown (which people can get ticketed for in some cities).

Among all demographic groups, men were most likely to commit violations while walking. People using phones were slightly more likely to travel outside the crosswalk, but not more likely to cross against the “Walk” signal.

Of over 3,000 pedestrians observed in the study, the vast majority were not distracted at all when using crosswalks.

Although the study didn’t look at the behavior of drivers in the same intersections, it does cite research that shows how much more of a threat distracted drivers present to city streets. A Center for Disease Control study noted that 31 percent of U.S. drivers said they’d texted while driving in the past 30 days (since that’s a self-reported figure, it may be low), and many, many studies have shown how much phone use while driving can slow reaction time. Texting while driving has been said to be as dangerous as driving drunk, and phones can distract even if drivers don’t use them.

These findings show that cities can’t assume it’s walkers who need to be reminded to pay attention, and probably shouldn’t spend money to add signage or flashing lights until they’ve conducted their own studies to understand how people are using their intersections.

“Practitioners must know as much as possible about the behavior of pedestrians and drivers,” reads the study’s text. “If they don’t know who is distracted while walking (or driving for that matter), they cannot target educational, enforcement, or design strategies at the people most at risk for these types of behavior.”

This study is especially timely because more and more cities have been criminalizing certain crosswalk behavior. Honolulu’s leaders, for example, have moved beyond awareness campaigns and are now fining walkers up to $99 for simply looking at their phones in crosswalks.

Even though it’s a far lower number than most people might imagine, even 14 percent of walkers being distracted in an intersection does present a risk. Which is why the study concludes that engineering solutions which make crosswalks safer for everyone, like preventing drivers from turning right at red lights, are the most effective policies.

One very simple idea that’s been credited with making streets safer and improving traffic flow is called the leading pedestrian interval, where lights are programmed to give walkers a few seconds head start, helping them avoid conflict with cars turning into the intersection.

For high-volume intersections, a scramble crosswalk, which stops all vehicles at the same time and allows pedestrians to cross in any direction, is another smart way to separate the movement of cars and people.

Policies that prioritize walkers over cars might also get more people walking. Writing at the Transportist, engineer David Levinson demonstrates how traffic signals favor vehicles over pedestrians and can actually lengthen travel times for walkers. Pedestrians often have to take a few steps out of their way to navigate into a crosswalk or press a beg button, and can spend as much as 20 percent of their travel time waiting for cars to pass at intersections.