New Study Finds "Distracted Walking While Young" Is Just Like Walking While Old

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CC BY 2.0. Duncan Harris / Wikipedia

Apparently people looking at their phones crossing streets with green lights and the right of way walk a little more slowly. Is this a problem?

Here is a new study that will no doubt be quoted a lot: Assessing the Effect of Pedestrians’ Use of Cell Phones on Their Walking Behavior: A Study Based on Automated Video Analysis. It uses "gait analysis," or video analysis of how people walk across the street, and concludes:

Results show that pedestrians distracted by texting/reading (visually) or talking/listening (auditory) while walking tend to reduce and control their walking speed by adjusting their step length or step frequency, respectively. Pedestrians distracted by texting/reading (visually) have significantly lower step length and are less stable in walking. Distracted pedestrians involved in interactions with approaching vehicles tend to reduce and control their walking speeds by adjusting their step frequencies.

© Rushdi Alsaleh, Tarek Sayed, and Mohamed H. Zaki of the University of British Columbia

In the study itself the authors, Rushdi Alsaleh, Tarek Sayed, and Mohamed H. Zaki of the University of British Columbia show a big ridiculously wide suburban street in Kamloops, British Columbia, where they measure the walking speed and gait of pedestrians. They do their video at "a busy intersection located near Thompson Rivers University at McGill and Summit Streets in Kamloops, British Columbia." It has four lanes, large radius right turn lanes where right turns are allowed on red lights, all the features of a pedestrian deathtrap. The paint seems to be worn off the lane markings too, but let's all talk about distracted pedestrians instead of road design and maintenance.

The study discusses interactions with approaching vehicles and turning cars, and find that "distracted pedestrians involved in interactions with approaching vehicles tend to have a significantly slower average walking speed and a shorter average step length compared with non-distracted pedestrians involved in interactions."

In their conclusions and recommendations, the authors suggest further research, including other distraction types, "e.g., talking to another pedestrian or looking at some other objects", kind of like Dustin Hoffman talking to John Voight in Midnight Cowboy. They also suggest future applications for their research, noting that "First, this data can help in developing pedestrian safety intervention programs and legislation."

walking pace graph

Rushdi Alsaleh, Tarek Sayed, and Mohamed H. Zaki of the University of British Columbia/Screen capture

No doubt. The problem with this is twofold: Firstly, the difference in walking pace may be statistically significant, but it is very small, and probably even when distracted, still at a faster pace than mom pushing a stroller or grandma with a walker. But more importantly, the study could be retitled "Assessing the effect of cell-phones on pedestrians crossing the street with the legal right-of-way at their own chosen pace" or "Assessing the effect of cell phones on pedestrians who are as distracted and walking as slowly as old people, people with disabilities or people walking with children" because there is no requirement or expectation that everyone has to hop to it and run across the street. There is a huge and growing percentage of the population that is naturally distracted or compromised, and they get hit and killed all the time at crazy multi-lane intersections like this. Or, as I put it on MNN, Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old.

This study gives ammunition to those who would criminalize "distracted walking while young" when in fact what we should be doing is designing intersections that are safe for everyone. The authors throw a everyone else crumb in the last paragraph, noting that "understanding the walking behavior and the changes in gait speed and stability not only of distracted pedestrians but also of more vulnerable pedestrians (e.g., children, elders, persons with physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities) helps in better planning and designing of pedestrian facilities to improve their safety."

But in the end, the roads should be designed for all of us. Picking on the kids on their phones walking with the right of way is just an excuse to shift blame away from drivers and from engineers who design such crappy intersections. It is ableist and ageist and to be blunt, a distraction.

I have written a lot about walking while old on sister site
Older pedestrians are dying on our roads
It's time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking