Walking into Danger

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It’s a scene becoming all too common in cities around the world: people walking on busy streets with their heads down, earphones in, typing away on the smartphone in their hand. All of a sudden the light changes, traffic zooms by and the pedestrian doesn’t notice and steps right into danger.

It’s a problem so new that official data on the role of distraction in pedestrian injuries and fatalities is not yet available. Instead, organizations such as the Governors Highway Safety Association must rely on anecdotal evidence from each state and videos such this texting man nearly walking into a loose bear, this distracted man falling into a subway, or this texting woman falling into a fountain.

Last summer, researchers at the University of Washington observed pedestrians at intersections in Seattle and found that 1 in 3 walkers were distracted by an electronic device.  Those who were texting were nearly four times more likely to not look both ways, disobey signals, and jaywalk. They also took about 2 seconds longer to cross intersections.  The dangers of distraction affect all road users, not just the person who is distracted.


Efforts to curb
pedestrian distraction have included a “dangerous walking” ban in one New Jersey town, a failed bill to ban the use of electronic devices while crossing streets in New York, and education campaigns such as Look Up in Delaware.

In DC, as 20% of the traffic fatalities belong to pedestrians compared to the national average of only 12%, groups such as the Pedestrian Safety Committee of the Council for Court Excellence have urged DC government to impose such a ban.

These bans are controversial, as many believe it borders on government interference. However, if distracted drivers in DC are fined for the endangerment of others on the road, shouldn’t distracted pedestrians be held accountable too?

Watch this interesting news recap for more information about the University of Washington study and the growing problem of distracted walking.

Additional Links:
NPR recap of University of Washington study
Official government page for distracted driving
District Department of Transportation Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety

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7 Responses to “Walking into Danger”

  1. aworldofpossibility Says:

    Although we generally hold the vehicle driver accountable in these situations, I think that some of the responsibility must be given to the pedestrians. Likely the best way to share this responsibility is through legislation, and eventually taking steps to building pedestrian-vehicle environments that are completely separated.

  2. channa2013 Says:

    This post is an interesting look at a new public health problem. We have gotten emails over our few months at Hopkins about pedestrians being hit just outside of the school. While some of this is attributed to poor driving, there is also a good deal that is attributed to distracted pedestrians. While these bans seem worthwhile, one difficulty of imposing such a ban would be enforcement. There are not police officers on every corner to hand out citations to people on cell phones. I think legislation may help, but changing norms around smartphone use will be just as important through things like PSAs and other media and advocacy campaigns.

  3. aliciamhernandez Says:

    It’s interesting that this has become a large public health problem. I understand the controversy over legislation as it seems like it would be an infringement on individual liberty. I think the responsibility to not hit pedestrians still falls largely on traffic signals and the driver. Drivers need to take turns in heavy pedestrian areas with more caution and that’s where the legal penalty should lie. The fact that individuals can’t rely on that is where personal choice and responsible behavior comes in – also be cautious and aware of your surroundings when crossing on foot. However, as I say this, I recall today it happening with a mother holding her small child’s hand in one hand while texting in the other, walking out nearly in front of me because she didn’t even bother to see that she had the don’t-walk signal. In the case of child endangerment, I would be all for giving a citation.
    ps – is it terrible that I found all those videos hilarious? 🙂

  4. jtschwartz Says:

    Great article, Danielle. I have to admit, the bear video was hilarious. I want to comment briefly on the legality of “dangerous walking” bans. Opponents of the bans seem to make the usual argument of libertarianism: government cannot and should not interfere with citizens’ personal decisions and actions. This same refrain appears in debates on gun control, smoking regulations, soda restrictions, etc., and it is entirely unfounded.

    Through the reserved powers clause of the 10th Amendment, each U.S. state possesses “police powers,” which enable the government to pass rules and laws to protect and to advance the public’s health, safety, and welfare (Gostin, 2008). The U.S. Supreme Court, in the landmark case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11, held that states in exercising their police powers may indeed infringe the individual liberties and rights of citizens, as long as the infringement:
    1) has a “real or substantial” relation to public health, safety, and/or welfare, AND
    2) is not arbitrary or in excess of what is “reasonably required for the safety of the public.”

    In sum, states have wide license to adopt regulations and legislation that constrain personal freedoms in order to promote the collective good. Bans on texting while walking in crowded urban environments represent a prime example of such governmental activity.

    • jtschwartz Says:

      Sorry, forgot to add the Gostin reference: Gostin, LO. Public Health Law: power, duty restraint. 2008. Univ. of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles.

  5. ldellplain Says:

    Related to what channa2013 said, for those of you not on location at JHSPH in Baltimore, Hopkins has confronted it’s own pedestrian safety challenge with a school-wide campaign called “Road Scholar.” The campaign is meant to raise awareness about safer pedestrian and cycling behaviors: http://hub.jhu.edu/gazette/2012/september/this-is-road-scholar-country-now

    While much of the organizing has been centered at the Homewood undergrad campus, I’m sure many of those at JHSPH have seen the Road Scholar signs and banners at the Monument/Wolfe and Monument/Washington intersections. I also know that at the Monument/Washington intersection, because there have been so many serious pedestrian accidents at this particular location, the school was able to change the traffic light on Washington to lag for 10 seconds after the pedestrian light. While I am unsure if it is related to the Road Scholar campaign directly, I also noticed that there are police officers directing pedestrian and car traffic at those two intersections at the rush hour times of day.

  6. carolynrodehau Says:

    As a DC resident and non-car owner, I have on occasion been a “distracted pedestrian.” I think this behavior is largely due to the high level of social connectivity and instant response time embedded in today’s culture. I’ll step away from my desk to get lunch, but find myself responding to emails as I wait in line for coffee or even as I walk back from the shop. I do think implementing such legislation would challenging not because of the potential infringement on individual rights, but in terms of setting a line…Is simply changing a song on a ipod “distracted” behavior? Or writing an email? Etc. I think a public awareness campaign would be an effective approach to this growing public health problem. This could be impactful as far as behavior change goes especially if paired with compelling research.

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