Is It True That Distracted Walking Causes More Injuries Than Texting While Driving?

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©. University of Regina School of Nursing

Seen on the wall at the University of Regina School of Nursing: a poster claiming that “distracted walking causes more injuries than texting while driving.” I thought this was insane and untrue; where could this come from? Googling it a few weeks ago, I found similar words all leading back to about 2013, with the Atlantic on top of google search with Study: 'Distracted Walking' Causes More Injuries Than Distracted Driving. It, and every other reference of the period, points to a study by Jack Nasar and Derek Troyer, Pedestrian injuries due to mobile phone use in public places, published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.

comparative injuries

© Study, Pedestrian injuries due to mobile phone use in public places

The study was behind a paywall when I first looked, but there was a graph in the Atlantic article that made no sense, showing 1506 injuries to pedestrians and 1162 to drivers. Which is totally crazy, because the Center for Disease Control tells us that 1161 drivers are injured every DAY, that in 2013, 424,000 were injured and 3,154 killed. Something was nuts.

Then Charles Komanoff of Streetsblog had a look at the question of where all this information comes from, that is being used to justify legislation that bans texting and walking. He went deep into the study by Nasar and Troyer, as I have now too.

Essentially, the source of the data for injuries to drivers and pedestrians in the table reproduced in the Atlantic was the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) database, where data on injuries is collected in emergency rooms. Nasar and Troyer knew that it was grossly under-reporting injuries to drivers, writing in the report that “ in 2008, for which NEISS estimated 1099 driver injuries related to mobile phone use: 515,000 people were injured and 5870 people died in traffic accidents in the United States related to driver distraction.”

So in what Charles Komanoff calls “the the wildest extrapolation you’ll see in any peer-reviewed journal this decade”, the study authors write:

Thus, for drivers using mobile phones, the number of crash-related injuries are about 1300 times higher than the CPSC national estimates of emergency room injuries. If similar numbers apply to pedestrians, then the 2010 national estimate from emergency rooms may reflect about 2 million pedestrian injuries relate to mobile phone use.

Given that there were a total of 66,000 pedestrian injuries of any kind for the year, that number seems a bit off. In fact, it is apparent that the whole meme, that distracted walking causes more injuries than texting while driving, is nonsensical.


Who you calling distracted?/Public Domain

So why is the auto industry, and those on its payroll, from orthopedic surgeons to governors, peddling this canard? Komanoff has a great quote from sociologist William Ryan: “Victim blaming is a subtle process, cloaked in kindness and concern.”

I think it is pretty much of a continuation of the anti-jaywalking campaigns, and the bike helmet wars, where out of an abundance of kindness and concern, they scare people off the streets and get them to walk quickly and purposefully and not delay (or jump out of the way of) cars. Either that, or they are trying to convince us that the only place you are ever safe is inside a steel cocoon.

Distracted walking is dumb. But it is being blown all out of proportion and the University of Regina nurses, like everyone else using these statistics, is peddling nonsense.