The “Distracted Pedestrian” Distracts from the Real Safety Problem

distracted walkingwaling billboard st paul

Public safety campaign from Minnesota DPS.

I remember the first time I heard about “distracted pedestrians. I was attending a civic event, mingling with a long-time traffic engineer. As we began chatting about street safety, he brought it up immediately.

“Distracted pedestrians,” he said, and went on about the increasing problem they posed. He was concerned, and spent a long time describing the issue, but I didn’t know what to make of it. I’d rarely thought about distracted pedestrians before. Compared to the litany of safety issues with Twin Cities’ streets, I hadn’t even registered this as a problem.

A year later, in honor of Pedestrian Safety Month, the Governors Highway Safety Administration has released a new report about the spike in people getting killed while walking on American streets. The report is thorough, timely, and well-intended. But unfortunately, many people viewing the results — safety professionals and media outlets in particular — are completely missing the boat about the safety problem. Too many people are framing the issue to emphasize the role of “distracted pedestrians”.

The worst example I’ve seen so far was on the NBC Nightly News. Responding to the report, NBC put together a short 2:00 news piece illustrating various ways that people, phones, and cars combine in often gruesome ways.

Here’s a rough transcript the worst parts of the NBC story, which is almost uniformly bad [cue dramatic voiceover]:

There’s an alarming spike in ped deaths. It’s the biggest increase in 20 years. According to a new study, a steady climb.

Walking is becoming more dangerous every day. Experts blame some of the increase on distracted driving, and now distracted walking can be just as dangerous. Near misses, seen online, often show it’s pedestrians at fault.

Some blame smart phones. Our frenzied need to stay in touch on our smart phones. Can often lead to danger. Fortunately incidents are not always fatal but are often embarrassing.

In the Netherlands they’re taking steps to keep pedestrians safe by installing lights in the sidewalk. But it will be hard to change the habits of those walking with their phones, often preoccupied many are oblivious to life speeding right by.

Experts say you just have to put your cell phone down, like driving. Pedestrians will need to do their part too, making the roads safer for all.

NBC was worse the most, but it’s not alone. There were a bunch of news stories and quotes from safety professionals calling out people for texting while walking, and trying to link the rise in pedestrian fatalities with a now-novel concept of the “distracted pedestrian.”

For me, the “distracted pedestrian” angle is a red herring that, at best, distracts us from the real problem of street safety. At worst, this logic is a straight-forward case of victim blaming. I believe that public safety and engineering professionals should take pains to avoid using the term in any way that suggest equivalence with the real problems of distracted driving and dangerous street design. Anything less is irresponsible because it lets drivers and street engineers off the hook. I fear that this kind of framing will only lead to more tragic deaths on our city streets.

A brief history of the distracted pedestrian

padded lampposts

Padded lampposts for texting-while-walking in the UK, part of an ad campaign.

Media outlets, especially those geared towards older viewers and readers (which is most of them), love the distracted pedestrian angle because of its novelty. “Check this out!”, the stories seem to say, “look at these people walking and staring at their cell phones… Kids today! Can you believe it?”

(The classic “home video” clips of people walking into fountains, walls, or poles from the NBC story are a perfect illustration of this angle.)

Yet apart from the phone itself, there’s nothing new about this narrative. The “distracted pedestrian” red herring has been around for a hundred years. If you go back in time to the early days of urban driving, people on foot more-or-less mingled seamlessly with traffic. That didn’t mean attention wasn’t an issue. Just as today, the onus was on people using the streets to watch where they were going. If you check out the famous San Francisco Market Street video from 1906, you see that’s exactly what people were doing. With slow speeds and attentive drivers, it worked just fine much of the time.


waynes world hockey

The street hockey scene from Wayne’s World.

Meanwhile, off busy drags, kids literally played in the streets. That was one of the primary uses of streets, in fact, and surely there’s nothing so “distracting” as an actual game of baseball, football, or street hockey (or marbles or ball-and-hoop or whatever kids played a hundred years ago). Back, especially on local streets, it was the drivers’ responsibility to watch out and pay attention. When this responsibility broke down, the campaigns against car violence in cities were fierce and unrelenting, and it was clear who was at fault for deadly crashes, and some cities — most famously, Cincinnati — had begun to make now-radical demands about how cars should be used in cities.

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Early editorial cartoons about drivers killing people in the streets.

History took a U-turn around 1920 when the infamous “jaywalking” campaign was born. Worried about speed limitations on urban driving, a coalition of automobile manufacturers, drivers, and other economic interests launched a campaign to blame pedestrians instead of car drivers for lapses in street safety. (In fact, the very term “pedestrian” gets us half-way there all by itself. The word itself carries a specific connotation. Unlike someone “on foot,” a pedestrian is assumed to be on a goal-oriented journey. A pedestrian becomes a specific category of purposeful person, opposed to “someone hanging out” or simply “people walking” or whatever.) The resulting public shaming campaign radically shifted public behavior in US cities. There are many accounts of the resulting “jaywalking” campaign, and by its own standards, it was wildly successful.

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Image and caption from “What Freeways Mean to Your City,” a publication of the Automobile Safety Foundation, 1964.

By the post-war years, cars had become the default users of public streets. It was assumed, basically unstated, that drivers always had the right-of-way. Anyone else — people on bicycles or on foot — had to seek special accommodation such as signalized crosswalk intersections, so-called “beg buttons”, or pedestrian freeway bridges (e.g. skyways) in order to use the street. Since then, “look both ways before crossing the street,” has been the mantra on every American child’s lips, and walking by a busy road is today a mundane terror.

The latest case might be different on the technological surface, but it’s no different in its fundamentals. Then, as now, people on foot are being blamed for their very existence, and walking is viewed as an unsafe intrusion.

Is the “Distracted Pedestrian” Even a Thing though?

pedestrian-menace-2Thinking more about the rash of distracted pedestrian stories, I ended up wondering: has anything even changed today? Are people walking around acting less safely?

I don’t think so. Outside of a few specific places, I don’t think distracted pedestrian is happening to any greater degree today than it was twenty years ago. (If anything, on a long-term scale, “pedestrian distraction” is way down for a whole host of social and environmental reasons having to do with changes to our urban landcape.) For example, if you actually go out and watch people walking around city streets like Minneapolis and Saint Paul, a distinct pattern emerges. In practice, there are really two kinds of spaces in our cities today. The vast majority of the streets are designed almost completely for cars. On most streets, there are precious few people to be found at all. On these streets, someone walking on a sidewalk or crossing the street is keenly aware of traffic. Walking these streets feels like taking your life into your hands.


A road in West Palm Beach, Florida.

On most streets, if someone is darting across traffic, it’s because they’ve made the conscious decision to do so. Maybe they believe they’re especially quick. Maybe they’re crossing mid-block because they don’t want to walk an extra 10 minutes out of their way to the “safe” corner. Maybe they’re tired of waiting for the beg-button-activated signal. (“Wait… wait… wait…”) Whatever the reason, in these places, you never see anyone walking out into a street with their head down in the phone.

Meanwhile, in other specific parts of the city, representing a tiny fraction of the whole, people on foot have begun to reclaim some measure of autonomy. These streets are mostly located downtown, by University campuses, along parkways, or around busier and narrower shopping districts. In these places you might find a host of different activities ranging from people on skateboards, people jogging while listening to music, people walking and talking in groups, people with kids or dogs, and people walking (yes) with their phones out. In other words, you see all kinds of interesting street life flourishing. And for the most part, in these specific places, vehicular traffic has been forced to adjust to the new reality. If there’s danger, it’s most often averted, because the vast majority of drivers are paying attention.

A pedestrian crosses the light rail tracks on the intersection of Oak Street and Washington Avenue on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. The line is slated for completion in 2014.

A pedestrian crosses the light rail tracks on the intersection of Oak Street and Washington Avenue on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013.

A great example of this latter kind of space is the Washington Avenue transit mall through the middle of the University of Minnesota campus. You have thousands of young people walking around every day, bustling around a rail-and-bus corridor. The intersections are so over-signed and over-engineered that everyone ignores the signals completely. When the light rail was designed, concerned University and transit folks were very worried about the prospect of drunk or distracted young folks stepping in front of a train or bus, but in two years of everyday “peak-distraction” conditions, there have been zero incidents.

Other pedestrian-first street spaces might include the Mississippi River parkways*, parts of the downtowns (like Saint Paul’s Wabasha Street), or walkable commercial corners like Lake and Hennepin. If you stop and watch folks walk around on these streets, you might see people “walking into traffic.” You might even witness the “phone-zombie” cliché that seems to dominate news narratives. But for these streets, that’s a feature not a bug. These are the precious few places where we’ve managed to place walkability first, and where the “pyramid of road users” has become a de facto reality. Here, the onus is on the car drivers to pay attention, drive slowly, and yield. And that’s a good thing, because these are the most dynamic and thriving parts of our city.

If there’s a problem anywhere, it’s in places that fall “in-between” these two categories. Just this week, there was another person killed trying to cross Nicollet Avenue in Downtown Minneapolis. Downtown streets should be designed around its sidewalks and people, but, like too many of our downtown streets, still tries to accommodate speeding cars. Downtowns should be all about walking, and driving speeds should be slow enough that crashes are never fatal.

It’s a Problem that Reporting Gets it Wrong

All this is to say that reporters, safety professionals, and street designers are doing a disservice when they equivocate between distracted driving and distracted walking. Note that not every media outlet or safety spokesperson gets it wrong. The Pioneer Press’s recent editorial on street safety was great, and have almost no equivocation of the dangers of walking and driving. So too with the Star Tribune’s heartfelt column by Tim Harlow on distracted driving. But if April’s media blitz is any indication, the temptation to focus on pedestrians remains a big problem.

By itself, “distracted walking” is no more harmless than taking a shower. Funny story: when you read through the actual scientific literature you find out that over half of all distracted pedestrian accidents occur within the home. I.e. people falling down their own stairs or walking into a doorknob or something. On your own, if you’re a “distracted pedestrian,” the worst case scenario is that you bump your shin or bruise your dignity. That’s about the extent of it.

Instead, the deadly problem facing our cities is the mixture of high-speed driving and walkable streets. It’s only getting worse as technology increasingly invades the driver’s seat. The real solution is technological and legal restrictions on phones in cars, combined with slow-speed street designs that force drivers to pay attention.

Talking about anything else is only a distraction that will get more people killed. Let’s focus on the real problem.


* Obviously, there are some problems here.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.