No, distracted walking is not causing the dramatic increase in pedestrian deaths
There is a thing that journalists and bloggers do where we “bury the lede”, or start off with introductory stuff and bury the most important part of the story way down the page. In my post Florida's official culture of driving blames pedestrians (and cellphones) for "vast majority" of deaths I kind of did that; it should have been more like Nicole Gelinas’ Distracted Reporting- The Today show gets pedestrian deaths all wrong, or Angie Schmitt’s dead-on put-it-all-in-the-title The Today Show Completely Botched Its Coverage of America’s Pedestrian Safety Crisis.
Because that is exactly what the Today Show did, and that is what everyone is doing: blaming pedestrians for distracted walking, and saying this is from the Governors Highway Safety Association report [PDF here], which said nothing of the kind. As noted in our post, it mentioned in passing that cell phones may be an issue, that there may be a correlation, but did not distinguish between pedestrian and driver use, and listed it way below other issues such as the fact that there are way more people driving more miles:
Governors Highway Safety Association /Screen capture
Angie cuts to the nub of the problem with the Today Show:
Why does the Today Show’s terrible coverage matter? If the problem of 6,000 lives lost each year boils down to victims’ behavior, the way Today implies, that absolves everyone else of any responsibility. We can all get back to living our lives comfortable in the assurance that nothing important has to change.
On City Journal, Nicole Gelinas notes that “NBC apparently can’t find one case of a texting pedestrian who inattentively walked in front of an attentive driver.”
The visuals in the NBC story point out the real problem: unsafe roads for pedestrians, whether they follow the law or not, whether they’re on their phones or not. The intersection where Sanders stands—after himself scurrying across traffic because the light changes too quickly—is more akin to a highway than a road, with three lanes of traffic moving quickly in each direction.
Gelinas says “The Today show could have put the emphasis on where the peril really lies: with inadequate laws and enforcement against bad drivers.” But this is not entirely true; most people do not mean to be bad drivers and there are laws against speeding. She should also mention the engineers who designed these roads in ways that make speeding is almost inevitable, that have corner radii too big so that cars don't even have to slow down. It is all designed for speed and efficiency, with pedestrians and cyclists as afterthoughts. Or as Angie Schmitt concluded:
We’ll never make progress on pedestrian fatalities if so many streets look like the highway where Sanders stands at the beginning of his report. We need streets where motor vehicles travel at non-lethal speeds and people can cross without taking their lives in their hands.
This is an urban design issue; our roads are deadly by design. They are almost impossible for people to cross safely. They are designed specifically to let cars drive fast.
© New Scientist
This is an automobile design issue; the dramatic increase in the sale of SUV and pickup trucks makes the crashes three times as deadly, a fact that is almost never mentioned in these discussions. We have to make SUVs and light trucks as safe as cars or get rid of them.
This is a demographic issue. The older you are, the more likely you are to die in a crash. There are more older people around (especially trying to cross those roads in Florida) and so there are going to be more deaths. As the baby boomers push into their seventies, this is seriously going to spike.
The use of smart phones by pedestrians is a non-issue, a rounding error and an excuse for happy motoring.