Let's Not Criminalize Walking and Texting. (We Have Bigger Problems)

Warning! People texting!. (Photo: Page Light Studios/Shutterstock.com)

Let’s say it right up front: texting while walking isn’t the smartest thing to do. We get a laugh out of it sometimes, like the time when that woman walked into a fountain. However in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey Fowler writes (behind a paywall) that texting while walking isn’t funny anymore.

It’s a public safety conundrum, and a symptom of an addiction. At the very least, it’s a design failure in smartphones that have mastered how — but not when — to get our attention. It’s time to ask what responsibility the tech industry has to address the problem.

He crunched public data from a fascinating National Electronic Injury Surveillance System and concluded that the number of emergency room visits involving distracted pedestrians was up 124 percent between 2010 and 2014 and up 10-fold since 2006.

It's interesting data, but it doesn’t say whether the texting pedestrians had right of way, were on the sidewalk or on the road, or were sitting in a restaurant when they were hit or injured.

no smart phones
It was hard to be distracted in 2006, when smartphones didn't exist. (Photo: Comscore)

But most importantly, it isn’t correlated against the increase in smartphone usage, up 300 percent since 2010 and almost infinitely since 2006, given that the first smartphone was just introduced in 2007. Yes, people texted on phones before, but they were not nearly so distracted. Fowler continues:

Some researchers now blame portable electronic gadgets for 10% of pedestrian injuries, and a half-dozen deaths a year. While distracted driving leads to more severe harm, incidents involving texting walkers are more common.

Now you have to parse what he's saying here at the end: Is it that incidents involving texting walkers are more common than distracted driving incidents? Or that they are just more common then they used to be? Because according to a government site dedicated to distraction:

In 2013, 3,154 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. This represents a 6.7 percent decrease in the number of fatalities recorded in 2012. Unfortunately, approximately 424,000 people were injured, which is an increase from the 421,000 people who were injured in 2012.

Really, by comparison, the purported injuries and deaths from distracted walking are inconsequential compared to the carnage caused by cars, which inflict death and injury on many pedestrians walking with or without phones. For that matter, it's inconsequential compared to icicles, bathtubs, vending machines and hot dogs, all of which kill and injure far more people.

Or is there another problem — that they're clogging the road by walking too slowly? Or is this really all about the drivers, who want to inculcate a culture of fear among pedestrians, the way they do cyclists? They want any pedestrians who enter their road to be alert and fast-moving at all times or they deserve what they get? It certainly appears that way.

slow swalking
Slow walkers, get moving!. (Photo: Plos One data, Wall Street Journal)

Fowler notes that texting while walking makes people walk more slowly and with a shorter stride length. This is perhaps a good thing. But as Brad Aaron of Streetsblog tweets, old, young and disabled people also walk more slowly. "If your transport system has zero tolerance for anyone who isn’t a fit adult, the system is the problem, and ... By casting blame elsewhere you assume everyone is like you — can see, hear, walk perfectly. Arrogant & extremely unhelpful.”

Fowler goes so far as to suggest that the phone manufacturers have an obligation to fix the technology, perhaps with apps that shut the screen off if you're moving into an intersection. But perhaps a better approach would be as Aaron suggests, to stop blaming the victim for walking too slowly or being distracted and to start dealing with the cars that hit them.

Seriously, in New York City alone last year, half a dozen pedestrians were killed while they were walking on the sidewalk — yet people want to criminalize pedestrians for looking at their phones, when we should be doing everything we can to get more people walking, instead of scaring them off the streets.

And if you think I'm being ridiculous here, look at this campaign — ostensibly by orthopedic surgeons but in fact paid for by the automobile manufacturers — which implies that pedestrians not keeping their eyes on the road, alert and ever ready are putting their lives at risk. Essentially they want you off the street and into cars. I wrote in TreeHugger:

So basically now, there is no more being a flaneur. No more enjoying the street, looking around, talking to friends, zoning out, listening to a few tunes. You have to keep your eyes on the sidewalk, straight ahead, and if you want to talk to someone, even your kid, pull over.

As Noah Rudnick of Transportation Alternatives told Pew, which did a study on distracted walking last year that I covered on TreeHugger, “If you’re looking at a phone when you’re walking around, that shouldn’t mean death. So we have to design forgiving streets.” As I noted regarding the Pew study and will repeat here:

The vast majority of pedestrians dying on our streets are killed by speeding or inattentive or incompetent drivers, not because they are looking at cellphones. This whole issue is a distraction.

Oh, and Fowler even made a video, with a guy in a terrible Chewbacca suit, to see if texting pedestrians would notice him. Talk about distracting!