Every few months we get to read the same misinformed story about “distracted walking” — how pedestrians are too busy looking at their phones to safely walk across the street. But Facebook updates aren’t the real problem here.
The latest story in the narrative that puts walkers at fault for getting killed by cars is an incredibly backwards-thinking piece in the Wall Street Journal. It claims that more pedestrians than ever are being hurt on streets and looks at some potential tech-based solutions to keep walkers focused on walking. Like sending a notification to your phone telling you to pay attention when you’re about to step off the sidewalk. Right — let’s put more animated graphics, beeps, and buzzes on your phone exactly when you’re supposed to not be looking at it.
The story goes on to propose that smartphone manufacturers should be held responsible for creating a product that endangers people’s safety when they’re on foot. Not, you know, the companies that make cars that hit and kill the people. (For the record: “Distracted walking” kills six pedestrians a year in the US. Cars kill about 4,800 pedestrians.)
One problem with pinning the blame on walkers is that it’s very difficult to prove that the phone was actually a distraction. Most people have phones on them at all times, often carrying them in their hands. And unlike drivers, walkers are allowed to look at their phones while they walk — they aren’t endangering other lives. So deciding that a person on a phone is “at fault” when a car strikes that person is a bit difficult. (Compared to when a person is operating a car and shouldn’t be looking at a phone at all, ever.)
But what this most recent story completely overlooks — as well as other misguided solutions for walkers, like banning phone use on crossings — is that we cannot blame phones for this increase in injuries. The US did not see a dramatic increase in phone ownership between 2014 and 2015. It’s not like apps suddenly became far more interesting.
This data is simply part of an ongoing trend that shows an increase in pedestrian injuries when Americans drive more. Not only was 2015 a record-high year for US car sales, Americans drove more than they ever have in history. There’s no other way around it: The more vehicle miles that are travelled each year, the more people who will be injured or die in crashes.
After years of declining pedestrian fatalities, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 2015 saw a troubling increase in deaths and injuries from crashes. Here’s a chart from a story in City Observatory that uses NHTSA and US Department of Transportation data to show the dramatic uptick in crash deaths — not just people on foot, but all Americans killed on streets — compared to miles driven.
Now compare that to the Wall Street Journal’s chart on “distracted pedestrian” injuries, which uses Consumer Product Safety Commission data to show how many people with smartphones ended up in the ER after being hurt on city streets (again — really hard to prove the phone was “at fault”). 2015 isn’t on this chart, but you can see a strong correlation with the other chart, especially from 2008 to 2014: As miles driven rise, so do pedestrian injuries.
In fact, looking at these two charts together, you can actually see very clearly that besides the past year, the most dramatic rise for ER visits, crash deaths, and vehicle miles driven occurred in 2009.
Hmmm, what else could have happened that year?
Yep, right now petrol is almost is insanely cheap. And Americans are driving more miles than ever. Unless drastic measures are taken to bolster alternatives to driving and keep cars off the road, we’re unfortunately quite certain to see even more crash deaths reported in 2016, as well as far more pedestrian injuries.
So blaming smartphones or “distracted walking” is misguided and ignores the real problem: Cheap petrol is putting more drivers on the streets than ever, and cities aren’t doing enough to keep the people on those streets safe.
Top image: A sign posted by the “Metropolitan Etiquette Authority” around New York City