Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do

Every few months we get to read the same misinformed story about "distracted walking" -- how pedestrians are too busy looking at their phones to safely walk across the street. But Facebook updates aren't the real problem here. The latest story in the narrative that puts walkers at fault for getting killed by cars is an incredibly backwards-thinking piece in the Wall Street Journal. It claims that more pedestrians than ever are being hurt on streets and looks at some potential tech-based solutions to keep walkers focused on walking. Like sending a notification to your phone telling you to pay attention when you're about to step off the footpath. Right -- let's put more animated graphics, beeps and buzzes on your phone exactly when you're supposed to not be looking at it.

The story goes on to propose that smartphone manufacturers should be held responsible for creating a product that endangers people's safety when they're on foot. Not, you know, the companies that make cars that hit and kill the people. It sounds a lot like the invention of jaywalking in the early 1900s. (For the record: "Distracted walking" kills six pedestrians a year in the US. Cars kill about 4800 pedestrians.)

One problem with pinning the blame on walkers is that it's very difficult to prove that the phone was actually a distraction. Most people have phones on them at all times, often carrying them in their hands. And unlike drivers, walkers are allowed to look at their phones while they walk -- they aren't endangering other lives. So deciding that a person on a phone is "at fault" when a car strikes that person is tough. (Compared to when a person is operating a car and shouldn't be looking at a phone at all, ever.)

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars DoStudies have shown that drivers are actually much more likely use their phones than walkers

But what this most recent story completely overlooks -- as well as other misguided solutions for walkers, like banning phone use on pedestrian crossings -- is that we cannot blame phones for this increase in injuries. The US did not see a dramatic increase in phone ownership between 2014 and 2015. It's not like apps suddenly became way more interesting.

Sadly, this data is simply part of an ongoing trend that shows an increase in pedestrian injuries when people drive more. Not only was 2015 a record-high year for US car sales, Americans drove more than they ever have in history. There's no other way around it: The more vehicle kilometres that are travelled each year, the more people who will be injured or die in crashes.

After years of declining pedestrian fatalities, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced that 2015 saw a troubling increase in deaths and injuries from crashes. Here's a chart from a story in City Observatory that uses NHTSA and US Department of Transportation data to show the dramatic uptick in crash deaths -- not just people on foot, but all Americans killed on streets -- compared to miles driven.

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do

Now compare that to the Wall Street Journal's chart on "distracted pedestrian" injuries, which uses Consumer Product Safety Commission data to show how many people with smartphones ended up in the ER after being hurt on city streets (again -- really hard to prove the phone was "at fault"). 2015 isn't on this chart, but you can see a strong correlation with the other chart, especially from 2008 to 2014: As miles driven rise, so do pedestrian injuries.

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do

In fact, looking at these two charts together, you can actually see very clearly that besides the past year, the most dramatic rise for ER visits, crash deaths, and vehicle miles driven occurred in 2009.

Hmmm, what else could have happened that year?

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do

Yep, right now petrol is almost as insanely cheap as it was in 2009. And people are driving more kilometres than ever. Unless we take drastic measures to bolster alternatives to driving and keep cars off the road, we're unfortunately quite certain to see even more crash deaths reported in 2016, as well as far more pedestrian injuries.

So stop blaming smartphones or "distracted walking" for the real problem: Cheap petrol is putting more drivers on the streets than ever, and cities aren't doing enough to keep the people on those streets safe.

Below: A sign posted by the "Metropolitan Etiquette Authority" around New York City

Smartphones Don't Kill Pedestrians, Cars Do



    Tell that to the pedestrian that walked into the side of my moving car and put herself in the hospital. Dented my door so badly it had to be replaced and then she had to pay for it because she was jaywalking and not paying attention.
    People walking and using their phone at the same time need to get a reality check. They are a pain in the ass to have to walk around because they are too self absorbed to be paying attention to others around them.

    Pedestrians on phones, on the streets, expect people to move out of their way. See it every day. They don't change that behaviour when they step onto the road.

    Pavements are for pedestrians. Roads are for cars. Cars don't mount street pavements to knock over pedestrians. Pedestrians step into the road, paying no attention, and get surprised there's a car there when they look up from their phone. I've seen that too.

    Obviously the drivers fault then.

    Is this an american article, cause holy shit balls, it's like a zealot wrote it drumming support for an upcoming crusade. Correlation does not mean causation - it could be a wide range of things and the data is far to broad to draw any serious conclusions (does give rise to some possible theories tho). Having said that if majority of the new pedestrian accidents are people with their nose buried in there phone well it's no ones fault bar the fuckin idiot with their nose buried in the phone.

      Agreed. It's unrealistic to think we can remove all dangers and distractions related to walking or driving, there are way too many possibilities and combination of things that can happen (intentionally or not). We live in a world that is dangerous and unpredictable (but also fun), get use to it, be prepared for trouble, and learn from other peoples misfortunes.

    Not paying attention is the problem. Sometimes it's the driver, glancing at phone, or the radio, or just daydreaming. Sometimes it is the pedestrian, caught up in conversation or trying to text while walking. Sometimes it's the lamppost. Just standing there, laying in weight for an innocent victim.

    The irony of a sign directed at people who don't pay attention to signs. ;)

    Its like those piracy warnings you see at the start of legitimately purchased movies, but not at the start of pirated movies.

    A little while ago a teenage girl walked into the side of my car and flattened herself because her eyes were glued to her phone instead of watching where she was going.
    I was sitting in the exit driveway of a servo in a large, brightly coloured sedan, watching her approach, thinking to myself "she's going to look up, surely. There's no way she's gonna walk into my car." Gawds I laughed when she did.
    Going by this article, i guess it was my fault though.

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