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Road Safety & Pedestrian distractions while walking in traffic

Background information:

Road Safety authorities often create awareness of the dangers of distractions to drivers and neglect to focus on the distractions facing pedestrians as well. We are now finding more and more accidents as a result of pedestrian inattentiveness. These are not merely resulting from pedestrians who weren't paying attention as they climbed up or down stairs, but also from motor vehicle crashes!

Most such crashes occur when the pedestrian crosses the street and many seem to result from pedestrian inattentiveness. Thus, when pedestrians are using mobile phones, distracted attention may increase their risk of accidents. We find a lot of people text messaging, on the phone, looking down or listening to music on their i-pods.

Many current road engineering technologies are focused on helping make pedestrians more aware of their surroundings. Having an understanding of how distractions affect pedestrian intersection interactions is important in evaluating such technologies. We will focus on these dangers to provide safety advice for our pedestrians.

The Dilemma of Accidents involving inattentive pedestrians:

It has been projected that there would be an approximate five-fold increase in the number of cellular phones worldwide between die years 2000 and 2011. The boom in the sales of personal mobile electronic devices (PMEDs) offers an additional source of potential distraction for pedestrians who multitask while walking to their destination.

For pedestrians most of the information at a crosswalk is obtained visually by watching traffic, seeing the markings and signage and observing the signs that indicate when it is safe to walk. Pedestrians who attempt to multitask while talking on a cell phone have a reduced cognitive capacity to devote to potentially dangerous activities such as crossing streets. The rise in use of personal electronics may be the main ingredient in a recipe for disaster especially around schools, campuses etc

Accident data confirming this dilemma is hard to find as the records usually only describe death or injury from "pedestrian distraction". Many accident victims also refuse to admit that they were distracted when they got into the accident.

What we do have is research studies - A team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported that children who talk on cell phones while crossing streets are 43 percent more likely to be hit by a car than when their phones are turned off.

By making the choice not to engage in distractive activities while crossing the street, pedestrians can make intersections and crosswalks safer for themselves. Regardless of the safety technologies available at a given crosswalk, one clear way to reduce potential accidents due to inattention is to have both pedestrians and drivers choose not to engage in activities that may distract them.

Distractions to pedestrians walking in traffic:

An assumption by road engineers is that pedestrians will allocate appropriate attention to their surroundings, thus allowing these features to have a meaningful impact on their behavior. A diverse set of circumstances and activities may however result in pedestrians not allocating appropriate attention to their surroundings.

What are these distractions inhibiting situational awareness?

  • Cell phone conversations
  • Text messaging 
  • Listening to music [i-pod]
  • Looking at something other than the direction of travel
  • Waving away an insect
  • Conversations with friends
  • Eating on the run
  • Looking on one’s watch
  • Attempting to find something in a backpack or luggage
  • Reading a book or newspaper
  • Being lost in thought etc

It is important to note that looking is not always seeing, and distraction caused by any of the above activities could result in pedestrians either failing to look or looking but failing to see. The looked-but-failed-to-see phenomenon is not new and is not limited to pedestrians.

International Research on Pedestrian Distractions:

Several research studies have been undertaken to analyze pedestrian behaviour when distracted. Some of these studies involved the following methods:

  • Stavrinos and colleagues used virtual reality software and three TV screens to simulate traffic at an actual crosswalk in Birmingham, Alabama. The team studied the reactions of 77 children ages 10 and 11 crossing the simulated road six times without the phone and six times while talking on the phone with a research assistant.
  • Kuzel et al. asked volunteers to walk through an office hallway and report on objects they perceived and details of those objects while being normally attentive, while having a casual cell phone conversation and while having a challenging cell phone conversation. 
  • In two studies research was done on the distraction of pedestrians associated with mobile phone use. The first had 60 participants walk along a prescribed route, with half of them conversing on a mobile phone, and the other half holding the phone awaiting a potential call, which never came. Comparison of the performance of the groups in recalling objects planted along the route revealed that pedestrians conversing recalled fewer objects than did those not conversing. 
  • The second study had three observers record pedestrian behavior of mobile phone users, i-pod users, and pedestrians with neither one at three crosswalks. Mobile phone users crossed unsafely into oncoming traffic significantly more than did either of the other groups. 
  • Nasar and colleagues recruited pedestrians in a real-world environment to walk a course either with or without being engaged in a cell phone conversation. Participants walked past five out-of-place objects at eye level and ground level. At completion of the course, participants were shown photographs and asked to select the photograph that contained the objects they had just passed. 
  • A different study by Kuzel and colleagues provided a review of real-world collisions involving pedestrians who were reportedly auditorily distracted at the time. The review indicated that highly salient and expected roadway objects such as buses, police vehicles and trains have been involved in collisions with reportedly distracted pedestrians at or near standardized road crossing points.

What did the researchers find about distractions and pedestrians?

  • The results indicated that subjects noticed significantly more objects while not engaged in conversation. 
  • The results of these studies suggest that engaging in an auditorily distractive activity can cause pedestrians to miss salient objects in their environment.
  • The researchers found that all of the child pedestrians, even those who were experienced at talking on cell phones, took more risks when they talking on a cell phone with one of the research assistants than when they were not distracted by their phones.
  • Distracted children in the Alabama research took about 20 percent longer to begin crossing the street, and they were 43 percent more likely to be hit by a vehicle or have a close call when they were on the phone.
  • These children also forgot to look both ways in about 20 percent of the crossings while on the phone; and they cut it a bit closer, giving themselves 8 percent less time to cross safely in front of oncoming traffic.
  • Research indicates that individuals who are auditorily distracted while crossing an intersection appear to exhibit unsafe behavior (failure to look right and left, wait on curb for light to turn green before stepping into the street, etc.

Researchers, enforcement officials and transportation engineers are presented with several options to meet the continuing challenge of improving the safety of distracted pedestrians. These include educating the public about the potential dangers of being distracted while walking; enacting regulations to change pedestrians' behavior related to distracted walking; and/or implementing new engineering controls. Research conducted on the effects of mobile phone use while driving has found that educating drivers about the hazards is more easily achievable than changing their behavior.

Conclusions & Safety Advice:

It is important to note that mobile phones offer convenience and safeguards to families, including use in emergencies - but they also may pose risk. We need to balance the positives with better knowledge on how cognitive distraction from mobile phone use reduces situation awareness, increases unsafe behavior, putting pedestrians at greater risk for accidents, and crime victimization.

Current crosswalk engineering countermeasures focus on speed control as well as maintaining a separation between pedestrians and vehicles.  Examples of common infrastructure countermeasures include roundabouts, speed bumps, pedestrian refuge islands, multilane stop signs and in-pavement flashing lights. Examples of common pedestrian and vehicular traffic flow countermeasures include reduced speed limits, leading pedestrian intervals, exclusive pedestrian phases, adequate traffic signal timing and pedestrian prompting devices. These would however be of no value if our pedestrians are not attentive to these measures and the risks they are aimed at avoiding!

Advice for our pedestrians in traffic includes:

  • Always be alert and watch for traffic!
  • Just as drivers should limit cell phone use while driving, pedestrians -- and especially child pedestrians -- should limit cell phone use while crossing streets! 
  • If you're going to talk on cellular phones, stay stationary! 
  • Don't walk and talk on mobile devices in traffic! 
  • Just stay stationary for a minute or call them back – Your life is more important than the conversation! 
  • Be fully aware of your surroundings – don’t let music take your attention away from the sound of oncoming vehicles, hooting or sirens
  • Be especially attentive near level crossings.
  • Do not assume that you have the right of way and that cars will stop for you!
  • Pay attention to warnings from gadget manufacturers and mobile providers on the dangers of using their products while crossing roads.

Click on any thumbnail to view image gallery

Also View:

Texting and Driver Distractions

Avoiding distractions whilst driving

Road safety and cellular technology

Road safety near rail/level crossings

Pedestrian safety

Avoiding Pedestrians

Pedestrian Safety Manual

Running / Jogging and Road Safety

Pedestrian Safety Advice

Click to download the "Walking Safely Research Report"

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