Phone Zombies: Distracted walking or distracting discussion?

Last week the NRMA released a report on the subject of pedestrian distractions related to mobile phones. The report is titled “Look Up”, but the media release was a bit more sensationally titled “‘Smombies’ on our streets: NRMA Pedestrian Report”. It featured in The Sydney Morning Herald and sister newspapers and also spread out through other Australian newspapers after AAP picked it up – all running with “Phone zombie” or similar headlines.

Most people will admit that being around “phone zombies” is annoying, but annoyance on its own is not a strong enough motivation to influence public safety policies, so let’s have a look at the report.

Their own observation of just more than 26,000 people found that 36% of people had some sort of phone usage while crossing at intersections. (No distinguishing between wearing headphones, being on a phone call or actively looking at a phone screen). They also provide further statistics about the number of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities, and mention the correlation between road safety risks, age and intoxication levels.

The NRMA’s spokesperson, Ms Vlahomitros says, ”Distracted walking is a form of inattentional blindness and when you undertake this behaviour you are effectively playing chicken with fast moving traffic – the results of which can be catastrophic.”

The report provides no evidence to support a correlation between pedestrian road incidents and mobile phone usage and they are not even making a direct statement that there is one (on a societal scale), let alone causation. However, the report implies that it could be part of the reason for increasing pedestrian fatalities, or maybe that it could lead to more fatalities in the future: “Traditionally our most at risk pedestrians are children, the elderly and those under the influence of alcohol, however distracted walking is now a growing phenomenon.” The idea that there is a correlation and that it has a significant impact on pedestrian safety is a very popular one and many aspects of the report is aimed at leading the reader towards the conclusion that pedestrians’ own actions are in general the cause of the risks they are exposed to.

Age factor

Another two sets figures in the report, seems to contradict the NRMA’s “findings”:

  • Half of pedestrians killed on Australian roads are older than 60 (but they are only 20% of the population)
  • 18-30 year olds are the highest at risk due to using phones while walking

The second point uses a source that groups people into 3 age ranges (18-30, 31-44 and 45-65). The higher the age range of the group, the less ‘phone walking’ was reported. The 45-65 group reported between 2% and 9% “high expose” usage for different activities while the 18-30 group reported between 27% and 52%.

It would be a mistake to come to any conclusions without going into a lot more detail, but if we were to apply the same level of crude analysis, the statistics used in the paper can be just as easily be applied to state that age plays a bigger factor than phone usage. As a side note, it is also worth adding at this point that Australian guidelines recommends pedestrians green time should match the pace of 1.3 metres per second, but that the average senior person can walk about of only 0.9 metres per second.

Jaywalking

The report also says “Jaywalking is dangerous and illegal” and encourages police to have more operations targeting this behaviour. No sources are given to either prove any part of that statement, including evidence that police operations has a positive impact on pedestrian road safety. The term “jaywalking” is an American term used for when pedestrians illegally cross the road at places other than intersections and zebra crossing, which is not illegal in Australia (for the exact details of the rules, see part 14 of the NSW road rules). Granted, the NRMA is using the term in an Australian sense and referring to Australian pedestrian rules being broken, but the common use of the American term in Australia is leading people to the false belief that the same rules apply to us.

Lots of data

Cover of NRMA “Look up” report

Figures on pedestrian phone usage and pedestrian injury and fatality rates are supplied, but none on any possible connection between the two. Yet, the reader is likely to come to a conclusion that there is a direct link and even causation. It preys on prejudiced beliefs and even strengthens it, in the process distracting from more serious issues that needs attention.

In addition to the NRMA’s own data they collected, the report provides a lot of statistics from other sources (on areas much broader than the main focus of the report) and thus gives the impression that the risks associated with phone usages in traffic was studied accurately and in great detail. It is safe to say that we do have a notable level of pedestrian phone usage, but the scale, implications and importance of the issue is highly debatable and not even discussed. The deductions made are crude and some not even related to the data in the report.

The bigger picture

However, there is no denying that inattentiveness is likely to increase your risk on the road to some extent, but this needs to be discussed in the context of other likely bigger risks – for example the role of motor vehicle speeds in incidents, driver behaviour and road design. A different study found that there is a correlation, but said “Limitations of the existing crash data suggest that distracted walking may not be a severe threat to the public health”.

To be fair, the NRMA mentions the need for infrastructure treatments to mitigate risks to pedestrians. Safer and slower roads will eliminate a wider variety of risks and more severe risks, including factors around older people. Their efforts are probably well-intended, but it is disappointing that the NRMA is using their voice to add to the fallacy that focusing on pedestrian phone usage should be one of the main components in pedestrian road safety initiatives.

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