I have been writing a lot lately about various campaigns to stop distracted walking, to ban texting and walking, and to even stop walking and talking as a distraction. Invariably, I am deluged in comments about how walking and texting while crossing a street is dumb and dangerous, and doing it on the sidewalk is rude and slows people down. I have also been criticized for my complaints about dressing pedestrians up in dayglo like the Beatles up above. I don't think I have done a very good job of explaining my concerns, and will try again here. It starts with the reasons used to justify these campaigns.
The New Jersey Assemblywoman who proposed a ban on texting and walking blurted out her reasons for doing it, which have nothing to do with concern about pedestrians:
An individual crossing the road distracted by their smartphone presents just as much danger to motorists as someone jaywalking and should be held, at a minimum, to the same penalty.
Basically, she is saying that like jaywalking rules, created to get pedestrians out of the way of cars, texting while walking is slowing drivers down and creating a burden for them that has to be legislated out. Because when someone is walking and texting they are not giving their undivided attention to the cars and to getting across the street as fast as possible. She continues:
A pedestrian distracted by their device and unaware of oncoming traffic may cause unsuspecting drivers to brake suddenly or swerve out of the way, creating a potentially deadly situation.
But lets look at the specifics of distraction and inattention. Is texting while walking really a problem? Data from Ontario, Canada show that it’s a non-issue and it isn’t growing.
Patrick Cain of Global News compared the data for collisions resulting from inattentive driving (which isn’t just phones, but includes fiddling with the radio, eating breakfast or dealing with bored children) and the data show a relentless rise that parallels the growth of cell phones and smart phones.
The increase in distracted driving may not just be the phones; in-car entertainment systems and displays get bigger, distracting billboards get digital, Ford builds fridges into their cars and cellphone controls get built into steering wheels so that drivers can talk hands-free. Cars are almost designed for distraction.
However when you look at the growth in collisions due to inattentive pedestrians, there isn’t any. It is up and down but essentially flat.
However data from a City of Toronto study are more interesting. It showed that only 13 percent of pedestrians hit in the city were inattentive, and if you look at the age breakdown, It skews at either end, to the young and old, who are often inattentive for reasons other than texting.
The age breakdown data points to an important issue: With the huge baby boomer cohort getting older and hanging up their keys, there are going to be a lot more pedestrians out there who appear inattentive. Many older people walk more slowly, have poor hearing, have deteriorating eyesight and some may even be a bit confused. They might be looking down at the pavement for trip hazards instead of straight ahead. They are acting pretty much like so-called distracted walkers are accused of doing. And they are getting hit; as Jane Gould notes in Aging in Suburbia, " the four states that saw the biggest percentage rise in traffic deaths also have a surging population of aging Baby Boomers, namely Oregon, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina."
Dr. Gould prescribes lower speed limits, as did Dr. McKeown in Toronto. Because distracted drivers.
Lowering the speed limit gives drivers more time to react to something that crosses their threshold, like a pedestrian oblivious to a right turning car. At some point the older pedestrian will be the one to amble, and the lower speed limit might help them safely transverse a wide, busy street.
We are entering an era of demographic change, with the population bulges of millennials who are driving less and walking more, but more critically, a lot more boomers and older people are going to be in the streets. Many of us in some way have issues that might keep us from being able to commit one hundred percent of our attention to crossing the road as fast as possible. But it's hard to ban getting old.
Spending so much time criticizing the occasional texter is misses the bigger picture: the people in the big metal boxes have a responsibility to respect the rights of everyone to get safely across the street at their own pace, whether young, old, small, handicapped or texting.