Yes, texting while walking is relatively safe but still annoying

  • >> Michael Gold, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-09-07 15:48:36 BdST

A pedestrian uses a phone while he crosses an intersection in New York on Jun 4, 2019. There’s little concrete evidence to connect distracted walking to pedestrian deaths, according to a new report released by the city’s Transportation Department. The New York Times

If you have crossed a street in a major city recently, the odds are good that you have bumped into someone staring at a phone.

Perhaps your eyes were also locked on your phone at the time. Maybe they are on the screen as you cross the street right now. (If so, look up! This story can wait.)

Worried about the danger that addictive smartphones might pose on car-clogged streets, New York state lawmakers in 2017 ordered New York City to study “the dangers of being a distracted pedestrian.”

Now the results are in: Texting while walking in the five boroughs will most likely not get you killed, according to a report released by the city’s Transportation Department last week.

The study found “little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.” In a review of national data, local reports and public health studies, the Transportation Department confirmed what safe-streets advocates nationwide have long held: Cars pose more of a fatal threat to pedestrians than chatty group texts.

“This is a message that really should resonate nationally,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, an advocacy group. “The message around distracted pedestrians being a danger to themselves is really taking away from serious safety measures.”

Nationwide, the number of pedestrians killed in traffic has climbed sharply in recent years across the United States.

The deaths approached a three-decade high last year, when an estimated 6,227 pedestrians were killed in crashes, according to a study from the Governors Highway Safety Association. It is the highest number since 1990.

In New York City, pedestrian deaths also increased last year to 114 from 107, even as overall traffic deaths in the city fell to their lowest levels in more than a century.

But the city’s report found that phone use was not a contributing factor. In a study of fatal crash reports from 2014 to 2017, it found just two cases in which devices were involved.

The pattern held nationally as well. According to the last six years of available national data, the share of pedestrian deaths involving portable electronic devices never rose above 0.2%, the study said.

“Distracted walking is a very minor contributor to pedestrian death,” the study said.

Rather than focusing on distraction, the city’s report suggested reducing pedestrian deaths was better achieved by redesigning streets to slow down drivers and better protect walkers and bikers.

“Human distraction has always and will always exist in some form, and is difficult, if not impossible, to entirely change,” the study observed.

The supposed link between pedestrian texting and fatal crashes took root at a time when both pedestrian deaths and smartphone adoption were rising.

By 2015, 68% of American adults owned a smartphone and 92% owned a cellphone, according to data from the Pew Research Center. That same year, pedestrian traffic deaths rose by 11%, the Governors Highway Safety Association found.

It was unclear why pedestrians shouldered the blame, given that drivers were just as likely to be distracted. Transit advocates said it was part of a larger culture in which cars and drivers were given priority on the roads.

“This is about victim-blaming,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group. “People get hit by cars, and you hear this narrative play out everywhere.”

Around this time, officials began exploring the possibility of banning pedestrians from texting while crossing streets, despite a lack of clear evidence suggesting a connection to injuries or deaths.

Jon Orcutt, a longtime transit advocate who formerly worked for the city’s Transportation Department, blamed government officials. “People see something out of their windshield and start to develop policy from that personal anecdote,” he said.

In 2017, Honolulu passed a law to fine pedestrians up to $35 for texting while crossing streets. The same year in New York state, Assemblyman Félix W Ortiz introduced a similar bill that never made it out of committee.

Ortiz, D-Brooklyn, reintroduced it this year. It was later adopted by state Sen John C Liu.

On Friday, Liu, D-Queens, said he would take the study’s recommendations seriously and consider whether the legislation was still necessary. But Ortiz said the new study only strengthened his resolve to push for the bill.

“Just one accident caused by pedestrian texting is one too many,” he said.

The assemblyman added that while drivers were ultimately responsible for avoiding crashes, pedestrians shared some responsibility for being careful on the street.

“I want to bring more awareness to pedestrians that this is something that you’re doing, I’m doing, and everyone is doing,” Ortiz said, adding, “We need more common sense.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service