Pedestrian deaths increase; cell-phone distractions may be culprit

In Philadelphia, city officials are running a public-safety campaign that implores road users to simply "Put. Phone. Down." In Florida, a similar advertisement reminds people, "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow."

What's unusual about these messages is that they target pedestrians. Amid widespread concern about distracted drivers on American roads, there's a growing body of research that suggests distracted walking is equally problematic. Pedestrians engrossed in their phone, text or Tinder conversations are stepping into intersections without so much as a glance at oncoming traffic.

That may be one reason pedestrian deaths are increasing. They jumped 15 percent in a five-year period between 2009 and 2013, according to a study released this week by the Governors Highway Safety Association, with 4,735 killed in 2013. In the same time, overall traffic fatalities have fallen by 3.4 percent. Pedestrian deaths now comprise 14 percent of all traffic fatalities, and approximately one pedestrian death occurs every two hours in the United States.

Alcohol is still a top culprit – it's involved in 49 percent of pedestrian deaths on either the part of driver or walker – but as cities rush to implement a wave of slower speed limits, wider sidewalks and street medians to counter pedestrian deaths, there's new focus on holding pedestrians accountable for eliminating distractions.

"Undoubtedly, motorists are responsible for many pedestrian accidents," said a July newsletter from the National Motorists Association. "But pedestrians must also assume responsibility for their own safety."

This week's report from the GHSA cites growing research that suggests pedestrians aren't yet doing their part. At 20 high-risk intersections, 26 percent of pedestrians wore headphones, 15 percent were texting and 13 percent talked on the phone, according to a 2013 University of Georgia study. More recently, a William Paterson University study issued earlier this year found more than 25 percent of New York City pedestrians were distracted by either their phones or headphones. Half of the pedestrians who crossed with a "Don't Walk" signal were distracted.

"Getting smashed at the bar? Don't get smashed walking home." - Minnesota public-safety campaign.

Those studies build on previous research, which found the number of pedestrians killed while using a cell phone more than tripled between 2004 and 2010, jumping from less than 1 percent to 3.6 percent of all pedestrian deaths, according to Ohio State researchers. Perhaps that's not surprising, given the proliferation of mobile phones in the mid-2000s, but what's concerning transportation officials now is the distracted-while-walking problem ranks highest among young people.

One in five high-school students, and one in eight middle-schoolers have been observed crossing streets while texting, wearing headphones or talking on a cell phone, according to the GHSA report. "It's time to expand the focus on the dangers of impairment and distraction to include walking," said Jonathan Adkins, the organization's executive director. "... Messaging about both unsafe behaviors should target pedestrians as well as motorists."

In Philadelphia, where a spike in pedestrian fatalities helped the city win a $525,000 grant to address the problem, the mayor's office is doing just that. In addition to the "Put. Phone. Down," campaign, the city is running another message that reminds pedestrians, "It's Road Safety, Not Rocket Science." Minnesota officials have addressed the dual threats of alcohol and distraction for pedestrians, running a campaign targeting bar patrons, that urges, "Getting smashed at the bar? Don't get smashed walking home."

With smartphones capturing so much of pedestrians' attention these days, at least one automaker has looked at innovative ways to turn the hand-held distractions into potential solutions. Honda has experimented with a short-range communication system that detects pedestrians and their phones, even if they're obscured behind signs or parked cars, and flashes a warning on drivers' dashboards. If the driver takes no action and the pedestrian steps in front of the car, emergency braking is automatically deployed. For more on the technology, check out the video below:

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