Walking While Distracted–Nobody Wins

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in April 2018 as NMA E-Newsletter #481. If you would like to receive the weekly one-topic NMA Newsletter, subscribe today!

Have we become a nation of cellphone zombies? Many experts believe that the increase in distracted driving, in particular using a cellphone to text while driving, has been a big factor in the increase of traffic fatalities since 2009.

Another factor apparently is distracted walking. Pedestrian deaths account for 16 percent of all traffic fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there were 5,987 pedestrian deaths in 2016, a 22 percent increase from 2014. A late February report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association stated that nearly the same number of pedestrians were killed in 2017.

Of course, not all pedestrians killed were distracted walking, but cities are certainly taking notice.

In 2011, five pedestrians died in Rexburg, Idaho and the city adopted a distracted driving ban the same day as a distracted walking ban. Since then, not one pedestrian in the town of nearly 28,000 has met a similar fate. Officials say enforcement and education have been key.

Montclair, California, population 39,000, recently passed an ordinance that will take effect in August, making it illegal to cross streets while on the phone, texting, or listening to music with buds in both ears. The first fine is $100 and can go up to $500 with repeat offenses. City Manager Edward Starr said something had to be done about these “cellphone zombies” who have their noses buried in their cellphones and their minds miles away.

Last year, Honolulu, Hawaii enacted a similar law. Honolulu is the first major city that has tackled this problem and certainly has a much larger footprint than Rexburg or Montclair.  Honolulu also has many tourist pedestrians, an additional issue for the city in the enforcement and education against distracted walking.

Several states and cities are contemplating such a law, including New York City and the state of Washington. Tech companies and automakers are rushing to make such laws moot in the development of driverless cars. Safety features such as pedestrian detection and avoidance have been promised but was recently compromised.

On March 18, a pedestrian was killed by an Uber driverless test car in Tempe, Arizona. This is the first known pedestrian fatality of a driverless test vehicle. Elaine Herzberg was walking across the middle of a dark street, outside of any crosswalk area, with her bicycle when hit by the car. The investigation is ongoing as to what went wrong. Why the woman walked directly into the path of a moving car perhaps can be chalked up as another distracted walking incident or to the mistaken belief on the woman’s part that a vehicle in full motion would automatically cede the right of way at the last moment.

By the same token, autonomous vehicle technology’s very nature requires sensing and reacting to its surroundings. Why didn’t the car’s sensors pick up on the approaching “object” and respond accordingly? The National Association of City Transportation officials recently released a Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism. One rule is that autonomous automakers need to make their vehicles safe without depending on other road users wearing sensors to be detected.

The assumption that autonomous technology will bring an end to all road deaths is not only mistaken, it is foolhardy. All road users must take personal responsibility for the safety of themselves and others, whether walking, riding, or driving. Anything less than that will result in more fatalities like that of the tragedy in Arizona.

Here are some additional resources on traffic safety from the NMA:

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