We have yet another category of dangerously distracted drivers and pedestrians on our roads: the players of Pokémon Go.
According to a study published last Friday in JAMA Internal Medicine, Pokémon Go was responsible for almost 114,000 incidents of distracted driving or walking during a single 10-day period last summer.
Those incidents included at least 14 car crashes, including one, presumably, that occurred on July 18 in Baltimore, when a driver in an SUV swiped a parked (and, fortunately, unoccupied) police cruiser.
“That’s what I get for playing this dumbass game,” the SUV driver said to the policeman who rushed to the vehicle to see if anyone had been injured. (No one had. You can watch the entire video here.)
When Pokémon Go was launched in North America in July, some doctors praised the game for encouraging physical activity. Players use their smartphones to search for and “collect” Pokémon characters placed in various real-world locations — a goal that requires the players to get outside and move around.
But, as the authors of the new study point out, “if players use their cars to search for Pokémon they negate any health benefit and incur serious risk.”
The authors also point out that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- to 24-year-olds, and that six in 10 crashes involving young drivers occur within six seconds of the driver becoming distracted.
Mining social media for data
To determine how many people play Pokémon Go while either in a car or while walking in traffic, a team of researchers led by John Ayers of San Diego State University turned to social media. They searched Twitter for posts from July 10 through July 19 that contained the word “Pokémon” as well as the word “car,” “drive,” “drives” or “driving.”
They found more than 345,000 such tweets, of which they randomly selected 4,000. These were grouped into three different categories, depending on who was playing Pokémon: the driver of a car, a passenger in a car or a pedestrian walking in traffic.
Digging deeper into that data, Ayers and his colleagues found that one-third of the tweets indicated that a driver, passenger or pedestrian had been distracted by Pokémon Go, suggesting that a total of 113,993 such incidents had been reported on Twitter during the 10 days of the study.
Here’s the breakdown of the tweets by category:
- 18 percent made it clear that the Pokémon game-player was the driver. For example, one driver posted, “omg I’m catching Pokémon and driving.” Another tweet said, “My mom just legit stopped the car in the middle of the road to catch a Pokémon.”
- 11 percent referred to a passenger playing the game. Such references included “Just made sis drive me around to find Pokémon” and “Spent the drive back with my bros phone in one hand and my phone in the other, with him yelling for me to catch Pokémon for him.”
- 4 percent mentioned a distracted pedestrian. These references included such statements as “Just saw a kid get clipped by a car trying to catch a Pokémon” and “Almost got hit by a car playing Pokémon Go.”
The researchers also searched Google News from July 10 through July 19 for articles containing the words “Pokémon” and “driving.” That search yielded 321 separate reported incidents of crashes caused by Pokémon Go, including one in which a player drove into a tree.
Limiting the dangers
Such incidents are not amusing. Distracted driving — and distracted pedestrian walking — is dangerous, no matter what the cause. And Pokémon Go appears to be very distracting. Although it did not take place in traffic, two young men fell 50 to 90 feet over the edge of an ocean bluff last July after becoming distracted while playing the game in Encinitas, Calif.
“Our findings can help develop strategies for game developers, legislators, and the public to limit the potential dangers of Pokémon Go and other augmented reality games,” Ayers and his colleagues write.
They recommend that the makers of Pokémon Go and other “augmented reality games” voluntarily restrict play not just to players traveling at speeds greater than 10 miles per hour (as they do currently), but to any driving speed. They also suggest that such games be disabled near roadways or parking lots “to protect pedestrians and drivers alike.”
“It is in the public interest to address augmented reality games before social norms develop that encourage unsafe practices,” they add. “Now is the time to develop appropriate controls.”
FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the JAMA Internal Medicine website, but the full study is behind a paywall.