Walking with phones - is it so bad?

13 Jun 2014

Last night (12 June) ABC Television's7.30 featured a story on police concerned about people walking while looking at mobile phones.  But is this really a big issue for pedestrian safety?

As set out in The Conversation, studies suggest that walking is more difficult while texting. Other studies suggest that people using mobile phones while walking may put themselves at increased risk of a collision. To be clear, crossing the road while using your phone, especially at uncontrolled crossing points, is a bad idea. 

But is it the main cause of pedestrian injuries?  It appears not.

A TAC study of 200 crashes affecting pedestrians in 2008/09 found that only one was looking at an electronic device, while four were talking on the phone.  A New York report describes research looking at 1,400 pedestrian and cyclist injuries between 2008 and 2011, with 8% saying they were injured while using an electronic device. An Ohio based study of hospitalisations across the United States found that in only 2-3% of pedestrian collisions was the pedestrian using a phone.  In contrast, it is estimated that the driver is distracted by a phone in 24% of total US crashes. 

With the recent explosion in smartphones, more research is probably warranted, but there is no evidence to suggest that pedestrians distracted by phones is anything more than a minor road safety issue.

If we want to get serious about pedestrian safety, we need to focus on road design, speed control and driver behaviour.  The TAC study found that crashes were usually caused by drivers - the most common crash scenario is a walker being hit when they are crossing with the green man.  We shouldn't let a few anecdotes distract us from the real issues.