City to State: ‘Distracted Pedestrians’ is Not a Thing

It's more likely that drivers are distracted than pedestrians, frankly. Photo: Washington University in St. Louis
It's more likely that drivers are distracted than pedestrians, frankly. Photo: Washington University in St. Louis

I’m payin’ attention here!

City officials have told state lawmakers that they are wrong in thinking that “distracted pedestrians” are causing many vehicular crashes.

In fact, the opposite it true: only 0.2 percent of pedestrian fatality reports blamed “electronic distraction,” according to a new city report that was quietly issued late on Friday.

“Cell phone use by pedestrians does not appear to be disproportionately contributing to fatal pedestrian crashes,” the report stated. “In short, despite growing concerns, DOT found little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.”

Those “growing concerns” refer to a 2017 bill by late State Senator Jose Peralta that mandated the city study, citing unspecified “dangers inherent in acting as a pedestrian while distracted by texting.” Other politicians — most notably State Senator John Liu, who has sought to criminalize “distracted walking” — have carried on Peralta’s legacy of blaming pedestrians for their own injuries at the hands of drivers. Last year alone, roughly 10,000 pedestrians were injured by car drivers, who caused more than 228,000 total crashes, according to city data.

The city’s report, “Distraction Shouldn’t Be Deadly,” offers no evidence of widespread distracted walking, citing the 99.8 percent of crash narratives that simply do not mention any texting or phone use at all. The city also sent observers to three signalized intersections in Queens: Queens Boulevard and 44th Street; 34th Avenue and 30th Street, and Broadway and Hooper Street. The agency noticed that many pedestrians were indeed on their phones when crossing, but 87 percent were “not distracted” when crossing the street.

The conclusion: “Cell phone use by pedestrians does not appear to be disproportionately contributing to fatal pedestrian crashes.”


That said, it is foolish to suggest that smartphone use — whose ownership nationally has risen from 35 percent of people in 2011 to near ubiquity today — has not played some role in the 50-percent increase in pedestrian deaths nationally over the last decade. As Streetsblog has reported, pedestrian deaths hit a national low in 2009, when 4,109 people were killed. By 2018, that number had risen to 6,227.

The city report showed that despite the increase in pedestrian deaths, a pedestrian’s use of an electronic device just before a crash still amount to .2 percent of incident reports.

The report said the city would not focus on blaming distracted pedestrians but it would continue in-school programs with middle-school kids, who are likely walking unaccompanied for the first time just as they begin to acquire smartphones of their own. That program is called “Cross this Way.”

But the larger message is clear: Drivers are to blame, and roadways must be made safe so that their errors and speeding do not result in death.

“DOT believes that the best way to address distracted walking, and all forms of distraction, is by creating a road environment focused on speed management – where vehicles are traveling at a safe speed so that crashes can be avoided, and when crashes do occur they are not fatal or severe. People will inevitably be distracted when they walk with mobile devices, or may be distracted in other ways. But, in line with New York City’s Vision Zero policy, this common human error should not result in death.”

Read the report yourself below:

New York City DOT Report: Distraction Shouldn’t Be Deadly by Gersh Kuntzman on Scribd

  • Anthony Macchiarella

    It doesn’t take a scientist to know that walking around without looking where you are going is a very reckless and careless thing to do. Accept responsibility for who you are and where you’re going and I guarantee life will be a much safer place for you to exist.

  • Joe R.

    The point here is that people make mistakes, whether they’re on a phone or not. A mistake crossing the street shouldn’t be a death sentence.

  • Vooch

    City streets are for people not hulking death machines.

    Operators of 4,000lbs machines using our city streets have the absolute burden of responsibility to operate this deadly machines in such a manner that children and the elderly are not harmed.

  • walks bikes drives

    87% of people crossing the street were not distracted. That means 13% were looking at their phones. Personally, I think those 13% are idiots, but if one of them were to get hit while otherwise crossing legally, then the cell phone use is of zero concern.

    Writing a law that criminalizes crossing legally while on your cell phone is like writing a bill that criminalizes not ducking when someone shoots you. Is the problem that you didnt duck, or is the problem that someone shot at you?

  • TM

    Agree with most of this, except that the 13% are idiots. I think the crash data supports the idea that even those who might be “distracted” looking at a phone or anything else, are doing so knowing that there isn’t anything coming that they need to focus on instead, and it won’t be dangerous for them to look down for a second.

  • It shouldn’t be a death sentence, but mistakes can and do have deadly consequences.

    That said I’m willing to accept the studies’ conclusion at face value despite my own experience of watching distracted jaywalkers who’ve careened too close to “4,000lb death machines” before looking up from their phones. (As a cyclist I’m hyper-aware of these accidents waiting to happen.)

  • kevd

    I do wonder how much distracted driving has to do with increased pedestrian and cyclist mortality this year.
    when I ride, I’ve been noticing just how many drivers are fiddling with their phones. Some are stopped at lights, and I suppose that it isn’t so dangerous there – but many are not.
    And a whole class of drivers has been added (Uber, Lyft etc) who are basically required to be distracted most of the time.
    I’ve even seen full size ipads mounted – I suppose so they can use the mapping portion of the driver app more effectively?

  • Camera_Shy

    “…the opposite it true.” s/b “is true” perhaps.

    The sharp increase in pedestrian deaths coincides with smartphone availability, and I think it is due to the distracted drivers. Thirty years of slow but sure decline then BOOM! it only took nine years to get almost back to where we were in 1989.

    And in those nine years, automobiles have become more “aware” and supposedly more safe. I wonder where the ped death number would be today without these advancements?

  • As a pedestrian with a Mobility disability, I’m mostly worried about other pedestrians

  • TheOnlyElroi

    This study should be provided to every internet commenter who blames pedestrians looking at phones for being ran over by motorists that don’t obey speed limits or traffic signals.

  • Snega Bondato

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