Distracted Pedestrians are On the Rise: What to Do About Them

Distracted Pedestrians are On the Rise: What to Do About Them

The Shortcut: We all know distracted driving can be deadly. But so can distracted walking. What can drivers do? We outline six safety strategies for drivers to steer clear of distracted pedestrians.

Admit it. We’ve all had a chuckle watching videos of pedestrians falling into fountains, smacking into walls, wandering into the path of a wild bear or tumbling down sidewalk cellars while engrossed in their phones. But an 11 percent spike in the number of pedestrian deaths in 2016 compared to the previous year shows that this can be a deadly serious problem, one that affects nearly all drivers who need to be more vigilant than ever for inattentive walkers.

Nearly 6,000 pedestrians perished in 2016 in the U.S. — roughly one person every 90 minutes and the highest total deaths in more than two decades, according to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association. That’s up from 5,376 pedestrian fatalities in 2015. At the same time, Colorado reported a 15-year high in pedestrian fatalities while Minnesota hit a 25-year record in the number of pedestrian deaths in 2016.

Disracted Pedestrian graphic 1While public officials struggle to find solutions, drivers must deal with the daily reality of pedestrians whose heads are buried in their phones. What to do? Here are six strategies from Del Lisk, Lytx’s Vice President of Safety Services.

Mine the data. To get a better focus on the problem, safety managers can start by examining their data to see if patterns exist in incidents involving pedestrians. Do they tend to cluster around a specific intersection or neighborhood? Do they occur more often during certain times of day? Do certain vehicle types experience more pedestrian-related events? Do they happen more often when vehicles are backing up? Identifying correlations in the data can help managers devise mitigating strategies.

Mind the speed. An article in Automotive Fleet advised drivers to slow down in order to give drivers more time to react to inattentive walkers and minimize potential damage in the event of an accident. The article cites a report from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which estimated that the risk of severe injury for pedestrians increases from 25 percent when struck by a vehicle traveling at 23 miles per hour to 75 percent at 39 miles per hour.

Expect the unexpected. Distracted pedestrians have difficulty maintaining their course or walking a straight line. A study from Stony Brook University found people who texted while walking veered off course by 61 percent. In addition, the study concluded that texting while walking deteriorates executive function and working memory, and influences gait “to such a degree that it may compromise safety.” That means distracted pedestrians may suddenly slow down in the middle of a crosswalk, unexpectedly veer into traffic, and, if they’re talking or listening to music on their smartphones, not hear you honking to get their attention.

Expand your “pedestrian zone.” About 82 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur outside of intersections, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association’s analysis of NHTSA data. That, along with the tendency for distracted pedestrians to walk erratically, means drivers should expand their awareness of pedestrians outside the usual zones. Actively scan from sidewalk to sidewalk to identify potential risks such as pedestrians and bicyclists. That said, most pedestrian activities still occur at intersections. Reduce speed when approaching intersections to increase your response time and reduce the distance it will take to stop.

Disracted Pedestrian graphic 2
Courtesy of the Governors Highway Safety Association, “Pedestrian Traffic Fatalities by State,” March 30, 2017. http://www.ghsa.org/sites/default/files/2017-03/2017ped_FINAL_4.pdf

Seek eye contact. Get eye contact from anyone who could potentially enter your path. If you don’t have eye contact, assume they don’t know you are coming. When a pedestrian is a potential threat and you don’t have eye contact, use a light tap of the horn to get their awareness.

Build distance. In general, the right lane puts you closest to pedestrians and bicyclists — and the inherent risks. When possible and legal, position your vehicle farther from the risks by traveling in a lane that is farther away from curbside activity.

It goes without saying that drivers, too, should refrain from being distracted themselves. Richard Retting, safety director for Sam Schwartz Transportation Consultants, told the Associated Press that the 11 percent spike in pedestrian deaths and the 6 percent rise in overall traffic fatalities correlate with an increase in texting and use of wireless devices. Retting told the AP: "It's the only factor that seems to indicate a dramatic change in how people behave."

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States with the Highest Number of Pedestrian Deaths

(Fatalities recorded between January and June 2016)

  1. California (359)
  2. Texas (322)
  3. Florida (301)
  4. New York (127)
  5. Georgia (109)

Source: Governors Highway Safety Association

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