Walking Under the Influence (of Your Phone)

Article by William Sweet

Photo by Rob Mattson

[Research] “Look both ways before crossing the street.” It’s a lesson that most of us learn by age 6. But according to Leah Thompson ’15, lead researcher and author of a new study on pedestrian behavior, it’s also a lesson that many adults unlearn.

The culprit, in many cases, is the smartphone.


Her study, published in December in the peer-reviewed journal Injury Prevention, shows that almost 30 percent of the people she and her research team watched cross the street were distracted in some way, often by their phones or MP3 players.

People who text-messaged while crossing were almost four times as likely to disobey lights, cross mid-intersection or fail to look both ways before crossing, as compared to undistracted pedestrians. Among Thompson’s other conclusions: People texting or talking on the phone walked more slowly than others. Those listening to music generally walked more quickly. Anyone tethered to technology was more likely to ignore traffic and traffic lights.

A Portland, Ore., resident on a pre-med track, Thompson conducted the research last summer, while working at the University of Washington’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. She and two other students staked out 20 intersections in Seattle with the highest rates of pedestrian injuries. Armed with timers and notepads, they observed more than 1,100 people crossing the street.

While many have studied the dangers of driving while texting, Thompson’s work breaks ground in the study of pedestrian distraction. (An estimated 60,000 pedestrians in the United States are injured by cars each year, and 4,000 are killed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

Thompson believes that technology magnifies “pedestrian arrogance,” the assumption that you’re safer than you actually are while crossing the street. “They don’t set out and say, ‘I’m going
to do this stupid thing,’” she says. “It’s inattention; it’s preoccupation. When you first get your license, you’re super-careful, right? And then you get more used to driving, and it becomes more automatic. We all learn to walk when we’re really young, so walking is just as automatic a thing for us.”

Age and other demographic factors played no role in who chose to ignore the rules, she says. Surprisingly, gender did: Women were twice as likely as men to neglect to look before crossing.

Thompson’s research has changed her own cell phone use—to a point.

“I never use my phone when I walk across streets anymore,” she promises. “I’m very good about looking left and right.”

When safely on the sidewalk, she rejoins the masses: head down, eyes on phone.

  • 1,102: Number of pedestrians studied
  • 7.3: Percent who texted while crossing the street

Texters compared to undistracted pedes­trians:

  • 1.87: Seconds longer it took to cross the average intersection
  • 3.9: Times more likely to disobey lights, cross mid-inter­section or fail to look both ways