3 Sources of Cluelessness Conspire to Blame Victims for “Distracted Walking”

For a policing icon who built his reputation on being data-driven, NYPD Commissioner William Bratton has a penchant for shooting from the hip on traffic safety.

At the Vision Zero conference yesterday, Bratton cited distracted walking as a reason pedestrian deaths in the U.S. are rising.

U.S. pedestrian deaths were indeed up last year, perhaps by as much as 10 percent. But how does Bratton know that an uptick in distracted walking — texting, earbudding and the like — played a part in the nationwide rise? How about in New York City? Has Bratton heeded the entreaties of street safety advocates and instructed the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad to data-mine its traffic death forensics to ferret out primary causes like drivers’ aggressive turning, speeding, texting, and curb-jumping, vis-à-vis screen-absorbed pedestrians walking into buses?

Unlikely. A better guess is that Bratton’s source was an AP story that ran earlier this week. Here’s the lede (emphasis added):

Pedestrian deaths surged by an estimated 10 percent last year as the economy improved, the price of gas plunged and motorists put more miles behind the wheel than ever before, according to an analysis of preliminary state traffic fatality data.

The growing use of cellphones distracting drivers and walkers may also be partially to blame, states a report released by the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents governors’ highway safety offices.

Into the maze we go: The governors’ association report, Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State, compiled preliminary first-half 2015 traffic deaths from all 50 states. It found that data from the Federal Accident Reporting System indicate a 6 percent rise in U.S. pedestrian deaths in the first six months of 2015 compared to the same six months of 2014, and adjusted the increase to 10 percent, based on the previous pattern of undercounting in preliminary FARS data. That adjustment may well be reasonable. But the report doesn’t have a scintilla of evidence that any of the increase may have been due to pedestrians’ distracting themselves with devices — or to any other behavioral changes, for that matter.

Meanwhile, though the report doesn’t say so, all U.S. road deaths — which outnumber pedestrian fatalities roughly 7 to 1 — also increased in the first half of last year. Definitive figures aren’t available, but media accounts suggest the increase was at least as steep as the rise in pedestrian fatalities. For example, the veteran auto-industry reporter Doron Levin, now at Fortune magazine, wrote last year:

NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] reports auto-related deaths increased 9.5% in the first three months of the year; NSC [the National Safety Council] says there has been a 14% jump in the first six months. (The groups use different statistical methodolgy.)

Here’s the rub, then: If the percentage increase in U.S. pedestrian deaths last year turns out to have been in line with the rise in all U.S. road traffic deaths, why would a possible increase in distracted walking mentioned by the governors’ association — or any change in pedestrian behavior, for that matter — have been a contributory factor? Wouldn’t the default presumption be that changes in behaviors by motorists — more driving, and, possibly, more dangerous driving — having caused a (presumed) 10 percent increase in all road deaths, would also have been largely responsible for the 10 percent increase in pedestrian deaths?

I’m seeing three distinct but mutually reinforcing sources of cluelessness here. There’s the governors’ association, which floats an insidious idea untethered to data. There’s the media (AP), which gives voice to it without checking it out. And there’s the NYPD, which as always stands ready to reproach vulnerable road users whom it can’t be bothered to protect.

I don’t know if distracted pedestrians are unwittingly killing themselves. Neither does the governors’ association or Bill Bratton. But police and state governments are sitting on a mountain of data. If they won’t take advantage of it, they should turn it over to public health advocates who will.

  • John Lloyd

    Well said. I seem to recall that the Governors’ Association report on bicycle collisions a year or two ago led to similar victim-blaming in media reports. That earlier Govs’ Assn. report, which cited a rise in the number of bike collisions, turned out to be flawed, insofar as the rate of collisions had actually decreased significantly–especially where better bike infrastructure had been installed. Their reports have tended to look at absolute numbers and ignore incident rates, which, in turn, leads to a predictable media/law enforcement car-centric victim-blaming reaction.

  • Just more victim blaming to me. Will “Distracted walking” be the new “jay walking”?

  • WalkingNPR

    Yep. I was at a medical conference today and they presented the data about how 44% of pedestrians struck in NYC are in the crosswalk with the light, 23% mid-block, and 9% against the light (and I believe 6% on sidewalk, though they didn’t present that number) and then proceeded to conclude that we need to educate pedestrians about distracted walking. My head nearly exploded. How you can look at that data and come to that conclusion I don’t begin to understand. It’s automobile Stockholm Syndrome.

  • Miles Bader

    So how many participants then proceeded after the conference to waddle to their SUVs, and return to their suburban homes (perhaps via the airport)…?

  • Time to beat up another octogenarian. #myVision #ZeroNYPD

  • Simon Phearson

    It’s really frustrating to me that some believe that even a fully attentive pedestrian should be able to know when a turning driver will stop for them, and when not. A turning driver could be a hundred feet away when a pedestrian enters a crosswalk when they enter with the walk signal.

    The only times being attentive have helped me to avoid a possible crash with a driver have been cases where the driver was clearly not slowing for a turn or where I could clearly see that the driver wasn’t even looking in the direction they were going. Being attentive, in other words, for the wrongful actions of drivers. Isn’t that what the people at your conference must have been contemplating, as well?

  • Joe R.

    So that’s at least 50% (those on sidewalks and crossing in a crosswalk with the light) who can’t by any stretch of the imagination be considered even partly responsible for being struck. It’s mind boggling how these people think the solution is to end distracted walking. Lots of pedestrians died long before we had smart phones. If drivers did exactly what the law prescribes pedestrian deaths would drop dramatically regardless of whether or not pedestrians were distracted.

    I’ll concur with Simon Phearson that the only time being attentive seems to help me is when drivers aren’t doing what they’re supposed to do. It may be good survival tactic for me, but as the operator of a heavier, faster, more dangerous vehicle the onus for being attentive should clearly fall on the driver, not somebody on foot.

  • CIS Watcher

    Also note: Quite a few of the pedestrian strikes that NYPD defines as “mid-block” are pedestrians who were knocked or dragged outside of the crosswalk or who were walking a few feet outside of the crosswalk at the time they were struck. It’s nonsense.

  • neroden

    Bratton was never “Data driven”. It was a bogus reputation based on garbage-in-garbage-out data. When you create quotas, you end up with no real data.

  • Andrew

    Or were crossing at intersections that didn’t have crosswalks in the first place (or that had unmarked crosswalks). For instance: http://www.streetsblog.org/2016/03/14/queens-driver-backing-up-to-park-kills-lin-qinyun-nypd-blames-victim/

    Or perhaps there was a crosswalk, but the pedestrian couldn’t cross precisely between the lines because a large puddle (as happened to me this afternoon) or a snowbank or an illegally parked car was blocking the way.

    I’ve never seen a motorist get fined for stopping stopping a foot or two ahead of the stop line (or, for that matter, for stopping squarely across the crosswalk). So why do the police obsess over whether the pedestrian might have been a foot or two outside of the crosswalk when he was killed? And why don’t the police instead obsess over whether, regardless of the precise location of the pedestrian, the driver might have been, you know, breaking the law?

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