Inside the Latest “Distracted Pedestrians” Con

Hospital records from 2014 showed that distracted walking accounted for 78% of pedestrian injuries throughout the United States.

— Daily News, Sunday, March 27, 2016

A report released in 2015 by the Governors Highway Safety Association found an increase in pedestrian fatalities, and cited texting while walking as partly to blame. Nearly two million pedestrian injuries were related to cellphone use, the report said.

— Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, March 25, 2016

Attempts to repress human-powered movement invariably arise from three elements: a penchant for victim-blaming, officials’ “windshield perspective” that marginalizes and devalues people outside cars, and dubious statistics. All three, especially the last, have lately been on prominent display in New Jersey, where a member of the General Assembly has introduced legislation prescribing $50 fines and up to 15 days in jail for anyone operating a hand-held device while walking on a public thoroughfare in the Garden State.

While the quotes above appeared after the legislation was unveiled, the memes they embody have been around for awhile. The first quote, from the Daily News, originally ran in that paper in 2014. Here it is in full:

Distracted walking, like texting, emailing, Facebooking, tweeting, and Instagraming while stepping through the city streets, has accounted for 78% of pedestrian injuries across the country, a recent review of hospital records found. Daily News, Wednesday, August 6, 2014.

The second quote, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, followed a slightly more nuanced version from the Governors Highway Safety Association’s 2015 report, Everyone Walks:

Taking into account… research that suggests that the number of traffic crash-related injuries suffered by distracted drivers is actually 1,300 times higher than CPSC [Consumer Product Safety Commission] national estimates, [Ohio State University] researchers projected “there may have been about 2 million pedestrian injuries related to cell phone use in 2010.”

As I show below, both assertions fall somewhere between bizarre and downright false. And both emanate from a single source: a 2013 article in the peer-reviewed journal Accident Analysis & Prevention. That article, “Pedestrian Injuries Due to Mobile Phone Use in Public Places,” by Ohio State University planning professor Jack Nasar and Ohio DOT engineer Derek Troyer, isn’t solely to blame for the first misstatement, but it’s squarely on the hook for the second.

Rebutting the claim that distracted walking accounts for 78 percent of U.S. pedestrian injuries

This one’s straightforward. The Ohio authors wrote in AA&P: “For pedestrians, talking on the phone accounted for 69.5% of estimated injuries, while texting accounted for 9.1%.” The sum of those percents (after rounding, presumably) is 78 percent, which is the percent in the Daily News stories. Unremarked in that sentence, however, is that the study in question was not looking at all pedestrian injuries, but only pedestrian injuries related to mobile phones. We thus have the unremarkable finding that most pedestrians who were using a mobile phone when they were injured in traffic crashes were talking or texting — as opposed to, say, switching playlists or posting on Twitter.

Federal data readily confirm that the number of mobile phone-related pedestrian injuries is relatively tiny — probably 40 times smaller than all pedestrian injuries. Thus, if talking or texting were reported in 78 percent of pedestrian injuries involving mobile phones, it follows that these factors are present in just 2 percent of all pedestrian injuries — a fairly trivial share, and one that squares with reports of hundreds of grievous pedestrian injuries reported in Streetsblog over the years.

A quick glance makes clear that the AA&P article addressed solely mobile phone-related pedestrian injuries. Apparently, the 2014 Daily News reporter and her editors blew past the context, took for granted that the percentages applied to all pedestrian injuries, and put the startling but false statistic into her story. Then last week, when the NJ legislation was introduced, the new reporter on the beat found her story and repeated the misinformation.

Rebutting the claim that nearly two million pedestrian injuries a year involve pedestrians’ cellphone use

This claim starts with the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission’s compilation of U.S. emergency room admissions from 2004 to 2010 for “injuries related to mobile phone use” in public places for pedestrians and bicyclists. From that data, the AA&P authors took the 2010 figure, 1,506, of which four-fifths were pedestrians and one-fifth cyclists. (To easily distinguish these categories from motorized travelers, they denoted the combined subsample as pedestrians.)

Here’s where it gets weird. The same CPSC data for 2010 somehow show only 1,162 mobile-phone related injuries among drivers, according to the AA&P authors. Yet federal data for the same year show 1,542,000 total injuries in U.S. “police-reported motor vehicle crashes.” Evidently dividing one number into the other, the authors concluded in their AA&P article that “for drivers using mobile phones, the number of crash-related injuries are about 1300 times higher than the CPSC national estimates of emergency room injuries.” Proceeding to multiply the CPSC’s figure of 1,506 injuries to pedestrians by the same factor of 1,300, they conclude: “If similar numbers apply to pedestrians, then the 2010 national estimate from emergency rooms may reflect about 2 million pedestrian injuries relate[d] to mobile phone use.”

That could be the wildest extrapolation you’ll see in any peer-reviewed journal this decade. “Only” 66,000 pedestrian injuries a year are recorded in official U.S. traffic crash data, yet the AA&P authors speculate that there may be 30 times as many attributable to mobile phone usage alone.

What’s most shocking is that this outlandish figure was incorporated into the Governors Association’s Everyone Walks report: “[T]here may have been about 2 million pedestrian injuries related to cell phone use in 2010.” It’s been clear to me for some time that the GHSA is little more than a front for feckless state “highway safety” panjandrums like New York’s Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, which dispenses county grants for police seat-belt checks and “Child Passenger Safety Programs” and is generally mired in a 1950s-era mindset in which the only road users are those inside vehicles. Nevertheless, to unsuspecting reporters, the GHSA is embossed with the imprimatur of “highway safety,” meaning its misinformation carries weight.

“Victim blaming is a subtle process, cloaked in kindness and concern,” wrote sociologist William Ryan over four decades ago. Battling victim-blaming along with the pervasive windshield perspective is hard enough without having to contend with bogus “statistics” as well. The Governors Highway Safety Association and Accident Analysis & Prevention have some soul-searching to do.

  • Bravo. I have been looking for backup in the fight against stupidity like this campaign:

  • BridgeTroll

    That’s all well and good, but whenever I combine walking with any other activity, I still make sure not to lose control and total a few cars/buildings/other pedestrians.

  • Alicia

    Do you know what college / university that picture was taken at?

  • gneiss

    Very nice breakdown on how this misinformation got out to the public in the first place. It has become a rather pervasive meme that texting pedestrians are to blame for their own injuries, even when they are walking with the right of way in a marked crosswalk. It’s to the point where we’ll start seeing media reports saying “so and so wasn’t on his phone”, like they do with helmets and bicycle collisions.

  • University of Regina, Canada, school of Nursing.

  • Wow

  • Brad Aaron

    From what I’ve heard from health professionals firsthand the medical community has bought into the distracted walking lie hook, line and sinker.

  • steely

    our own venerable NYPD and even the DOH are perpetuating this garbage too

  • WalkingNPR

    Oh yes, sadly. In the last couple of weeks alone, I have attended a conference in which well-respected researchers in the field blamed pedestrian injuries on distracted walking and harped on helmets as well as a talk about bike safety that focused solely on cyclist behaviors without controlling at all for bike mode share. It’s frustrating.

    I see how it happens, though. It’s a lot easier to find some injury database that records things like helmets and cell phone use and crank out some quick papers than to try to research this bigger, systems-level stuff like street redesigns and mode share. And cranking out publications is what counts. Then, once you start building your career around being the bike helmet guy, you’re invested. Hence, there’s a lot of junk information out there on walking and, especially, biking.

  • Brad Aaron

    Don’t know what they think of mixed metaphors.

  • Brad Aaron

    Sounds like we may have been in the same room.

  • Oh for same, that’s disappointing.

  • Had a frankly frustrating discussion w/ Santa Clara County Health policy person who’s talking about pushing “distracted walking” legislation for our area.

  • Unfortunately the way our country works, this can probably only be fixed by lobbying efforts on the part of Google, Samsung, Apple, etc.

  • Jesse

    Wow. I don’t know what to think of this. Were the parties involved that mathematically illiterate or was this intentional? The reporting is so disconnected from the facts that it’s hard not to suspect that the misrepresentation here might be deliberate.

  • HamTech87

    Thank you, Mr. Komanoff.

  • People who want to sell things like bike helmets or, say, automobiles have a lot of motivation to fund — or at least help push through PR channels — studies that show that cyclists need more helmets and that cities need fewer distracted pedestrians.

    People who just want to ride or walk safely, having nothing to sell and no major lobbying groups, typically can’t fund the types of studies or marketing campaigns to push back against these lies.

  • WalkingNPR

    Couldn’t agree more. That’s one of the major streams of my research is trying to find whatever little channels there are to promote active transportation (for example, convincing employers that active transportation is in their financial interest). But yeah, with all apologies to the All-Powerful Bike Lobby, there’s not the same kind of money in human-powered transportation. We’ve made some progress against Big Tobacco and some against the junk food industry, though, so I have hope we can eventually make some progress against Big Auto, too.

  • gneiss

    Diving into the data they present in Table 1 of their report, they also seem to suggest that the number of motorists injuries related to cell phone use actually dropped from 1,336 to 1,162, between 2009 and 2010. This despite the fact that the number of total injuries to motorists recorded increased from 43,000 to 50,000. That statistic calls into suspicion how they are counting those numbers, particularly since they are showing a rise in pedestrian injuries related to cell phone use over the same time that they have a lower level of total recorded pedestrian injuries (54,000 vs. 41,000).

    How this article managed to get published in a peer reviewed journal is absolutely beyond me.

  • Ngonz

    This is a great story. I once had a driver cut in front me while had walk signal. I happened to be in the middle of a phone call. So when I gave her a dirty look, she yelled at me, “You were on your phone,” as if my harmless walking and talking was worse than her driving a heavy machine in front of me.

  • JK

    This super important debunking of a damaging and pernicious myth needs to be republished with some simple charts. Credit Charlie with pounding this nonsense to smithereens, but this research will be worth far, far more if the piece is shortened and centered around graphs. This is the kind of piece that groups like T.A. and Families for Safe Streets and Tri -State Transportation Campaign can use to educate lawmakers and transportation decision makers.

  • Scientists are not immune from confirmation bias, etc. I.e., you find the results you look for. The peer review process is supposed to weed out this type of nonsense, sadly it clearly has failed to do so in this case.

  • Komanoff

    I completely agree, John. In fact I was saying pretty much the same to Ben as I turned the piece in. The narrative is far too dense (tedious, even) for anyone but the already-committed to grasp.

    Anyone who can help make this happen should contact me, and probably Ben. I’ll lend a hand, but it’s a totally different skill set. Let’s find a way and do it!

  • If you live in the assemblywoman’s district who introduced this bill, it’s important to reach out to her about it. It don’t think many politicians read StreetsBlog, unfortunately. Her office can be reached at AswLampitt@njleg.org.

  • Isaac B

    This reminds me of back when the “Walkman” became popular and governments moved to restrict them in various ways. IIRC, Woodbridge, NJ banned walking with them altogether. The NYC news showed a clip from a City Council meeting where someone testified that “everyone knows” that when you wear headphones, you can’t hear what’s going on. Never mind that “hearing what’s going on” is not mandated when you drive a car. In fact, many cars proudly highlight that you can pretty much block out all outside sounds. NY (and probably most states ultimately banned cycling with headphones.

    Campaigns like these are just ways for people who don’t understand the problem (or choose not to) to pretend that they’re doing something.

  • Andrew Mutch

    This nonsense is even getting repeated in non-transportation articles. See how the reporter dumped some of these stats into a story and then pushed back when challenged on how she created a false impression with her phony stats.

    https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2016/03/29/it-may-soon-be-a-crime-to-walk-and-text-in-new-jersey/

  • Andres Dee

    Inventing imaginary crimes you committed and imaginary obligations you failed seems to be a classic bully technique.

  • Andres Dee

    Infographic with 3 charts graphically representing comparable size:
    – Number of people in USA “they” think are injured or killed due to “distracteded walking” (yeah, I just coined that)
    – Number of people actually injured or killed by “distracteded walking”
    – Number of people killed or injured by driver negligence

    Short caption

  • Andres Dee

    When your “peers” go by the initials A, A and A?

  • Andres Dee

    Probably written by someone who texts and drives “because everyone does”

  • Komanoff

    I like that. You create/design template, I’ll fill in. Write me off-blog. Thx.

  • AMH

    “It was unclear whether the cyclist was using a cell phone…”

  • AMH

    Wow.

  • Foginacan

    It’s convenient.

    Every time I cross a chaotic street with my cell phone in my hand, turned off, I just know if that’s how I get hit, someone will blame it on the cracked phone 8 feet from my body.

    I wish there were a movement to consider pedestrian safety.

  • Miles Bader

    Campaigns like these are just ways for people who don’t understand the problem (or choose not to) to pretend that they’re doing something

    … and an attempt to shift the blame off of drivers, because the people doing this typically both self-identify as drivers and perceive their audience as being drivers.

  • Jason

    To really hammer the point home, I’m fairly certain that no state will deny a deaf person a driver’s license. Hearing is not, in fact, a requirement for driving. It’s treated as depending purely on vision.

  • Jason

    I live in Santa Monica and recently had to get some blood drawn. Somehow the conversation moved to the point where the woman drawing my blood was blaming “distracted walkers” and not the people who hit them.

    I bit my tongue, because I have a history of very bad blood draw experiences (difficult veins) and this woman actually knows what she’s doing and is able to get me on the first try…but god damn was it hard to bite my tongue.

  • WalkingNPR

    That sounds like a very specific brand of torture: needles + having to listen to windshield perspective nonsense. I’d give up my secrets quickly…. 🙂

  • Andres Dee

    I’m a little under the gun. Can anyone else jump in?

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