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.

jaywalking car death 1923

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.

freeways mean 0

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.

16 thoughts on “The “Distracted Pedestrian” Distracts from the Real Safety Problem

  1. Teresa Boardman

    I have been known to walk up to cars and pound on the window as the driver attempts to run me over while taking a right turn on a walk light. I also yell and scream and wave my fists when cars turn left right across the cross walk with the walk light on. There is a war out there. If I could run over cars with my feet I would.

    1. Julia

      This! Drivers are forever turning right while ONLY looking left. How is this not something being talked about? How is it ok to accelerate a 2 ton vehicle in a direction you’re not looking?

      I have been hit by drivers doing this, once ruining my bike (no report, driver took off, I didn’t know what to do) as I biked home from the library down Hennepin with my little brother. Other times bumped. Other near misses that fill me with a horrid rush of adrenaline.

      I honestly haven’t figured out how to safely cross in front of these drivers. And going behind feels equally unsafe, given how drivers will also back up without looking in these scenarios. Ugh. Wish I could go over, as Teresa suggests.

      1. Justin Doescher

        I walk to the bus at 46th and 35W, a guy in a work van almost ran me over once. I was enraged.

    2. Will

      I did this one when someone almost drove straight into me in St. Paul when I crossed with the light. He left his vehicle in the intersection and challenged me to a fight. Be careful.

    3. Rosa

      drivers get so mad, too! I’m like, if I can kick your car you were about to hit me with it!

  2. Luke Birtzer

    Good read.

    If I find myself in the suburbs (or maybe, hypothetically, if I actually took the Red Line to Apple Valley lol), I like to walk through parking lots near strip malls in such a way that cars have to slow down or even stop. I make sure they see me, of course, and it may annoy them, but I think it’s a good reminder to them that some people are not in large metal boxes.

  3. Jackie Williams

    there is a location in downtown Minneapolis at 901 3rd ave s. The pedestrians are refusing to use either crosswalk that is on both ends of this block. For some reason they prefer to stand in groups of 5 or more in the bike lanes as they wait to jay walk, through heavy rush hour car & bike traffice. this happens every single day at 5pm. I am all for pedestrian safety, so why are these people refusing to use the crosswalks and the lights? I do call MPLS311 but that effort is about the same as mailing a letter to Santa.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      In my experience, if lots and lots of people are using a street or space in ways “it wasn’t designed for”, the problem is with the design not the people. We need to design with people’s behavior in mind, rather than trying to force everyone to act according to some unrealistic standard.

      The same principle applies for drivers, bicyclists, etc., by the way. Simple saying “everyone obey the law” doesn’t work if the architecture and design of the environment is sending conflicting messages.

  4. GlowBoy

    This article is dead on. As near as I can tell, the “distracted pedestrian” menace isn’t a thing. Yes, lots of people cross the street in crosswalks while looking at their phone, but usually when they have the right of way.

    Of all the pedestrians who are killed by cars – thousands per year – how many were looking at their phones at the time? Disproportionate shares of these deaths occur at night, in low-visibility conditions, involving alcohol, along roads without sidewalks or involving crossing a road where there isn’t a crosswalk. Staring at a phone while legally crossing in a crosswalk almost *never* is the scenario.

    So basically drivers are angry when they stop for a pedestrian who doesn’t look up and make eye contact with them. This is a double standard, though: we don’t get mad when we come to a stop sign at a busy road and the drivers passing by don’t make eye contact and thank us for not killing them. But for some reason we do expect this of pedestrians.

    The way I see it is that people on foot are expected to genuflect before the almighty driver, and those who don’t are considered insolent, disrespectful, and insubordinate. Furthermore, in these discussions someone always has to remind pedestrians about how dangerous cars are to them (as if they didn’t know that), which is nothing if not a threat. And most drivers lack the self-awareness that they view pedestrians as a lower class who’s supposed to suck up to them, or else – even while demanding it.

    I think there’s also some resentment towards pedestrians that they are allowed to walk around while looking at their phones, while drivers are not. As if those two activities were analogous. Piloting a 4000 pound block of steel with 3 digits of horsepower and speeds often exceeding 30 mph is an enormous responsibility. It carries far more potential to cause deadly harm to others than a 150 pound human body going 2-3 mph. Driving demands a much higher standard of care and conduct, but people seem to want to pretend otherwise.

    1. Rosa

      well and, who cares if they’re looking at their phones? The story then is “pedestrians fail to jump out of the way as drivers drive dangerously”

      It is the job of the driver not to hit things. Period.

  5. Keith Morris

    If distracted pedestrians/walking was so dangerous, where is the alarming number of dead motorists killed by pedestrians walking distractedly into them? Clearly, they aren’t killing anyone and it’s the motorists causing all of the deaths (and injuries).

    Also, I would add that in addition to certain downtown streets, business districts, and parkways, that the suburbs do offer walkable, bikeable areas in the narrow streets of faux “towne centres” and several strip mall “streets”. They’re decked out with slow speed limits well under 30 MPH and designed to be self enforcing with lots of stops, pedestrian crossings, and even speed bumps (not to be confused with wide, gradual speed humps). The problem is outside of these privately owned areas it quickly becomes hostile to anyone not in a car. It seems as though a consumer’s life is deemed far more important when they’re near a business’s front door (as evidenced by traffic calming galore) than just a plain human being trying to get between points A and B (as evidenced by stroads and total lack of pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure).

  6. David MarkleDavid Markle

    At least there doesn’t seem to be an issue about cyclists distractedly attending to their phones as they ride, vis-a-vis drivers!

    But we do have a safety need to separate riders from pedestrians or at least slow down near pedestrians and observe that pedestrians have the right of way. (I am a pedestrian.)

    1. Rosa

      oh that totally happens. Mostly I see it on the separated bike paths. But there are plenty of cyclists on phones or poking at their Stravas or whatever.

      I do wonder, looking at newer cars, why we let manufacturers make dashboards that are inherently distracting and make so much light you can’t see out the windows well at night.

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