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Distracted walkers and cyclists

Why are so many walkers and cyclists distracted on the road? While we hear about driver distraction being a problem, distraction among other road users is also a huge issue.

The main causes of being distracted while walking or cycling are:

  • Looking at a cellphone
  • Listening to music
  • Talking to a walking companion
  • Crossing streets or riding in the rain.

These types of distractions can lead to deaths on the roads and railways.

Risks for distracted walkers

Distracted walkers are more likely to trip, walk into something immovable like a signpost, step out into the road without looking, and suffer concussions, sprains, cuts, fractures and broken bones. Injuries from distracted walking are increasing exponentially every year with the majority of the blame apportioned to cellphone use.

Why is being distracted such a risk?

In a study by the University of Washington’s Injury Prevention Centre, almost 30% of 1102 pedestrians observed crossing the street at 20 high-risk intersections performed a ‘distracting activity’ while crossing the street. 6.2% were talking on the phone, 11.2% had headphones on, 7.3% were texting or otherwise looking at their phone. People looking at their phone took 18% more time to cross the road and were around four times more likely to disobey signals or to not look both ways.

How do distracted walkers walk?

It’s not just the person that can be distracted, they can also be distracting!

Distracted walkers:

  • Walk more slowly
  • Change direction more often
  • Look around less frequently
  • Have longer reaction times
  • Are more likely to cross even when the signal says not to cross
  • Spend less time looking at traffic before and while crossing
  • Take longer to cross and miss more opportunities to cross
  • Are more likely to step in front of traffic at unsafe times.

What happens when we cross the road?

When we reach the kerb we look both ways up the road and we perform a complex set of mental calculations to figure out the speed and distance of approaching vehicles based on our knowledge of how fast we can get across the road. Other mental processes that distract us from this make it much more difficult to accurately judge that traffic, or we might not notice it at all, particularly if we are in a hurry (which can happen if we’re dashing through the rain, too).

Risks with electric vehicles

Electric vehicles are much quieter than petrol and diesel-powered vehicles which adds more danger to distracted walkers and cyclists, given that they won’t hear them.

Technology helping distracted walkers and cyclists

Vehicles with autonomous emergency braking (AEB) and forward collision warning (FCW) help drivers brake earlier to reduce the impact of crashes. While this technology isn’t widespread, it will eventually be ubiquitous just like anti-lock brakes are.

How can you watch out for distracted walkers and cyclists?

Joggers move much faster than walkers. Watch for them not looking when they are crossing a side street on the left or right that you are turning into. Watch for them giving quick turns of the head and veering towards the kerb as they may be considering running across the street. Joggers frequently run with headphones and won’t necessarily hear your horn. Be especially aware of joggers at dusk and night when they’ll be less visible.

Distracted walkers give you more time to predict their movements. Watch for walkers looking at their phones who are getting close to the kerb. Some studies found that more than 35% of 18-35-year-olds are distracted by their mobile phone when walking. Watch out for distracted walkers who are also drunk walkers. Use scanning to get a good overview of what’s coming up ahead so you can react early. Don’t assume that a pedestrian will wait for you to stop at a pedestrian crossing

Distracted cyclists swerve and wobble more than other cyclists. Give cyclists a minimum of 1.5m room when you overtake.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

Posted in Advice
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