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Some smartphone distractions are more dangerous for pedestrians than others, study finds

Distracted pedestrians have become an urgent — and growing — public health concern. An estimated 6,283 pedestrians in the U.S. were hit and killed by a vehicle in 2018, the highest number since 1990.

Distracted pedestrian
Distracted pedestrians have become an urgent — and growing — public health concern.
Photo by Mathieu Bigard on Unsplash

People who use their smartphones to text or browse while they walk are at considerable more risk of having an accident or a “near miss” than pedestrians who talk on their phones, according to a study published online this week in the journal Injury Prevention.

That doesn’t mean that chatting on a phone while walking isn’t risky. It’s just that the risk does not appear to be as great as that associated with texting.

The study — which reviewed and analyzed the findings from more than two dozen previous studies on this topic — also found no evidence, however, that listening to music put pedestrians at a heightened risk of accidents.

“Smartphone use that takes a pedestrian’s eyes off the traffic environment has a higher potential safety cost than activities that do not curtail scanning,” said Jeff Caird, one of the study’s authors and a cognitive ergonomics researcher at the University of Calgary, in an interview with Reuters.

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“Turning on ‘do not disturb’ while walking may allow pedestrians to reflect and be aware of their environment,” he added.

Distracted pedestrians have become an urgent — and growing — public health concern. In the United States, pedestrian deaths have climbed 42 percent within the past decade — a period when other traffic-related deaths have fallen by 8 percent. An estimated 6,283 pedestrians in the U.S. were hit and killed by a vehicle in 2018, the highest number since 1990.

Yet, despite those troubling statistics, evidence on the role that smartphone use may play in pedestrian-related traffic accidents and fatalities has been surprisingly limited.

Study details

Caird and his colleagues decided to fill that research gap. They pooled and analyzed data from 14 previous experimental studies (involving 872 people). They also systematically reviewed the findings from eight observational studies.

In the experimental studies, people were brought into a lab where they were put on a treadmill and asked to perform street crossings (using a computer simulation) while engaged (or not) in various smartphone activities. In the other studies, pedestrians were observed at road crossings by trained observers who coded their behavior.

In the observational studies, anywhere from 12 to 45 percent of pedestrians were found to be distracted.  Common causes of that distraction were talking, texting, socializing and listening to music. (Particular caution should be taken when interpreting the music finding, however. These studies assumed that people wearing headphones or earbuds were listening to music. They could have talking on their phone, listening to a podcast or even walking in silence.)

For their meta-analysis, Caird and his co-authors looked specifically at what the pooled data said about the effects of smartphone use on five specific measures of pedestrian behavior: the time it took to start walking or begin crossing the road; missed opportunities to safely cross the road; the time it took to cross the road; whether the pedestrians looked left and right before crossing; and any collisions or “close calls” they had with vehicles.

The analysis revealed no association between listening to music and potentially dangerous pedestrian behaviors.

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They did find, however, that talking on the phone was associated with an increase in risky behavior, but only a small one. People engaged in a phone conversation tended to take a bit longer to start crossing a street when it was safe to do so than people not using smartphones. They were also slightly more likely to miss opportunities to cross safely.

The potentially most detrimental activity, however, was texting/browsing. It “significantly” lowered the rates at which walkers looked both ways before crossing a road and moderately increased the rates of collisions and close calls that pedestrians had with vehicles. To a lesser extent, it also caused people to miss more opportunities to cross a road safely and lengthened the time they took to make the crossing.

The reason why texting and browsing while walking poses a greater risk to pedestrian safety is not all that difficult to figure out.

“Texting requires a pedestrian to repeatedly divert their eyes away from the walking environment and traffic, towards the screen of the phone, to type and read messages,” the researchers explain in their paper. “Browsing requires repeated device interactions and information scanning.”

Limitations and implications

As Caird and his co-authors point out, the studies they reviewed and analyzed came with “a variety of study quality issues.” So, any findings should be interpreted with caution.

They urge more research on the topic, including into solutions to help mitigate distracted walking — ones that go beyond public awareness campaigns, which, unfortunately, have been found to be ineffective at getting people to put away their phones while walking.

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Such solutions, the researchers point out, could include “e-walking lanes, traffic tickets + enforcement, wrapping poles with padding [distracted pedestrians walking into poles is, apparently, a widespread problem], having mobile phones [set off an] alarm when at crossings, [and] taking personal responsibility for not being distracted and restricting exposure to vehicles.”

“Given the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, apps, digital video and streaming music, which has infiltrated most aspects of daily life, distracted walking and street cross will be a road safety issue for the foreseeable future,” they stress.

For more information: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the Injury Prevention website, but the full study is behind a paywall.