Trucks at Work

Dealing with distracted walking

Sounds a little ridiculous, doesn’t it? “Distracted walking.” Like who doesn’t let their mind wander off while walking down in a park, though the grocery store … or crossing a busy street.

Yet add in the ubiquitous smartphone and now you’ve got a recipe for trouble – especially in terms of crossing roads packed with speeding vehicles.

Think this isn’t a problem for trucking? Just wait until a big rig hits a pedestrian who wanders, unthinking, into the roadway – eyes glued to their smartphone screen or head bobbing to music piped in through earphones that are designed to block out exterior noise in order to deliver the best sound.

Even when the truck driver isn’t at fault, that never usually translates to news coverage of such incidents.

[A rare exception is this tragic and fatal crash along US-50 in Indiana this week. It didn’t involve a pedestrian, but the passenger vehicle failed to heed the stop sign; something distracted pedestrians will do. And a trucker can do almost nothing in such a situation to prevent a crash.]

A recent international survey conducted by DEKRA Accident Research in six European cities illustrates just how widespread the issue of “distracted walking” is getting, with almost 17% of the nearly 14,000 pedestrians monitored in this study using their smartphone in various ways while crossing roads thick with traffic. 

Following an initial small-scale pilot study in Stuttgart, Germany, DEKRA said it sent survey teams to Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Paris, Rome and Stockholm. In each of those cities, pedestrians and their smartphone use were observed at three different locations: busy intersections and pedestrian crossings near the city center, at public-transport stops and at train stations, where levels of pedestrian density tend to be highest in Europe.

Across all cities and age groups, DEKRA said just under 8% of pedestrians were seen texting while crossing the street, with a further 2.6% making phone calls and around 1.4% doing both at the same time.

Around 5% wore earplugs or headphones without speaking, so were probably listening to music, the firm noted.

As expected, younger pedestrians tended to use their smartphone more frequently than older ones, with use being most intensive in the 25-to-35 age group at 22%. And while texting was most common among female pedestrians, men listened to music much more.

"Making calls, listening to music, using apps and texting all cause a risk of distraction in road traffic," noted Clemens Klinke, a member of the DEKRA board in charge of its automotive business unit, in a statement.

"Many pedestrians clearly underestimate the dangers for their own safety if they divert their attention from events on the street in this way," he said.

Klinke added that DEKRA’s survey teams also reported some “extreme individual instances” of distraction as well.

"One thing that was observed repeatedly was groups of young people looking at a smartphone together while crossing the street,” he said. “In one case, the entire group actually collided with a cyclist."

Other far scarier examples of “distracted walking” recorded by DEKRA’s survey teams include:

  • A woman pushing a baby carriage across a pedestrian crossing at a set of traffic lights while texting on her smartphone without looking at the traffic lights as she crossed.
  • A man pushing a baby carriage, holding a child by the hand and crossing the road with his smartphone jammed between his shoulder and his ear.
  • A woman talking on the phone while running across the road to catch the streetcar without looking around first.

"One incident in Stockholm made a particular impression,” Klinke said. “A young girl stood in the middle of the road, got her cell phone out and started texting. It wasn't until a bus driver sounded his horn that she realized where she was standing and moved on."

Here’s why this issue of “distracted walking” is such a big deal in terms of roadway safety:

  • A look at the accident statistics shows that around 22% of all people who die in traffic accidents in the European Union are pedestrians.
  • Most of these pedestrians are killed within towns and cities; in Germany, for instance, the proportion is 70%.
  • According to the German Federal Statistical Office, approximately 10% of deaths on German roads are caused by pedestrians acting “inappropriately,” or in other words are distracted in some fashion.
  • Around half of these cases involve passengers failing to pay attention to vehicles on the road.
  • Even though children are a common cause of accidents here, there are believed to be a large number of unreported cases in the other age groups that are linked to smartphone-related distraction.

"As an unprotected road user, you face a much higher risk in the event of an accident,” Klinke said. “And distraction caused by smartphone use should never be underestimated."

Something truckers on this side of the pond need to start adding to their lexicon of daily hazards as they go about their business.

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