Misinformation in the pedestrian safety debate

2 May 2016

By David Mepham

A number of media reports in the past few weeks have painted a dramatic picture of pedestrians routinely risking their lives by texting while walking or crossing the road. The media coverage includes calls for $200 fines for distracted pedestrians, while similar reporting in the United States goes so far as to criminalise distracted pedestrians with fines and jail time for walking and texting.  A closer look at the issue shows this is an exaggerated response to misrepresented data.

The peak road agency, Austroads, recently published the report Distraction and Attitudes Towards Safe Pedestrian Behaviour. A key finding, repeated in the summaries and recommendations but ultimately unsubstantiated, is "up to 40% of pedestrians may be distracted by mobile phones when crossing the road.” The figure is referenced in their literature review to three papers. The first, ‘Teens and Distraction: An in-depth look at teen’s walking behaviors,’ found 20 per cent of high school students were ‘distracted’ by their mobile/smart phone devices when crossing a road. Of those, 39 per cent were observed to be texting, 39 per cent of 20 per cent is about 8 per cent, a very different finding from "up to 40% of pedestrians may be distracted by mobile phones when crossing the road.”

The second paper cited in relation to the “up to 40 per cent…” claim is the ‘Impact of social and technological distraction on pedestrian crossing behaviour: an observational study.’ This paper cites 29.8 per cent of pedestrians performing a distracting activity, including listening to music and talking to a companion while crossing the road. Text messaging accounted for 7.3 per cent.

The third paper cited is ‘The association of distraction and caution displayed by pedestrians at a lighted crosswalk,’ published more than ten years ago, which found approximately 20 per cent of pedestrians were ‘distracted’ as they cross the street.

This evidence does not support the claim that "up to 40% of pedestrians may be distracted by mobile phones when crossing the road.”

The literature on distracted pedestrians regularly cites talking to other people and listening to music as distracting, even though this is accepted behaviour while driving, which clearly necessitates a higher level of attention.  The Austroads review of the literature highlights observational studies and simulated experiments which suggest phone use while walking may change pedestrian, and even driver, behaviour. However, the review does not uncover strong evidence that this ‘distraction’ presents a genuine road safety risk for pedestrians.  It is reasonable to assume that texting or internet searching pose a potential safety risk for pedestrians when crossing a road, while listening to music or talking which are regularly included in the data is a significantly lower risk.

The Austroads Report provides original research on pedestrian distraction using interviews and an online survey. The intercept interviews found about 40 per cent of interviewees rarely or never (once a week or less) used their phone while walking. Those using their smart phones while crossing the road were generally half of this number, with around 80 per cent rarely or never initiating a text/internet search, or respond to a text, while crossing a road - 9.5% said they would initiate a text more than once per day, 6.2% once a day and 5.7% cent several times a week. The likelihood of smart phone use while walking or crossing were higher for 18-30 year olds with the likelihood declining with age.

The Austroads Report provides useful new data about pedestrian smart phone use and walking but by repeatedly citing “up to 40 per cent of pedestrian may be distracted by mobile phones when crossing the roads” throughout the report the reader is led to believe there is a more serious problem requiring serious interventions.

The Report recommendations flag education and awareness programs, but notes “evaluation of these is rare and so effectiveness is unknown.” It then recommends further research on other possible measures, including changes to legislation to affect pedestrian behaviour, which “may support or lead the required changes, providing there is high community support for the legislation.” It notes the success of engineering solutions separating pedestrians from traffic in time and space.

The Report makes pedestrians out to be the problem without considering the broader factors at play like, for example, distracted drivers. This plays to elements of the media who are inclined to victimise and criminalise pedestrians rather than deal with the more substantive issues such as more appropriate speed limits in busy pedestrian areas.

Pedestrian and driver distraction is a difficult concept to define and measure. There are numerous ways in which pedestrians and drivers are distracted and use of smart phones is part of this problem, but distracted drivers are not only a risk to themselves but to others.

Those in the business of investigating pedestrian safety have a responsibility to provide fair and balanced reporting, or risk victimising or criminalising pedestrians. The Austroads Report summary and findings are flawed by a misunderstanding of the data. Because of this failing the Report is damaging to the quality of the debate about pedestrian safety. My firm view is that the Austroads Report should be rewritten or withdrawn.

Dr David Mepham is a Melbourne based planning consultant dedicated to integrated transport planning solutions.