It’s not distracted walking that is killing NYC pedestrians

By Michael Brenneis

“[NYC]DOT found little concrete evidence that device-induced distracted walking contributes significantly to pedestrian fatalities and injuries.” So concludes a recent report examining whether device-distracted walkers are killing themselves by stepping out in front of motor vehicles. A significant number of pedestrians in NYC are distracted, the report continues, but that is not what is leading to their demise. It’s dangerous driver behavior—speeding and failure to yield—that is killing pedestrians. According to the NYCDOT, designing streets to counteract driver misbehavior is the way to go.

Nationally, only a tiny fraction (0.0 to 0.2 percent) of pedestrian traffic fatalities involved the use of a portable electronic device (by the pedestrian) between 2010 and 2015. Non-fatal injuries involving a cell-phone-distracted pedestrian ranged from 2.4 to 5.4 percent of all pedestrian injuries between 2009 and 2015.

Examining crash narratives from 2014-2017, NYCDOT found one pedestrian in NYC who was killed while texting, and one who was killed while retrieving a dropped device. That’s it. During that same period, NYC drivers killed 534 pedestrians. In 112 of these cases drivers failed to yield to pedestrians who had the right-of-way. Another NYCDOT study showed that about 13 percent of pedestrians were distracted by devices while successfully crossing the street. These numbers just don’t build a convincing case for blaming pedestrian distraction when pedestrians are killed, to paraphrase the report.

The way the media frames the discussion of crash victims who are pedestrians, it’s no wonder pedestrian distraction seems like a root cause. Some advocates say education efforts and anti-distraction city laws are misdirected and amount to victim blaming. Exposure to vehicular traffic is inherently dangerous for pedestrians, as demonstrated by the long-term consistency and recent increase in the number of pedestrian fatalities. The redesign of roads for slower speeds is seen by many as an imperative.

Device-distraction on the streets is not all that risky. Pedestrians are put at risk by the dangerous behavior of drivers. No doubt, it doesn’t hurt to pay attention when crossing streets—even for a pedestrian with the right-of-way—but don’t expect reduced pedestrian distraction to change the pedestrian death rate. One proven way to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths: slower cars.

Michael Brenneis is an Associate Researcher at SSTI.