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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Head up, phone down

While travelling any street in America (and likely in other countries) you’re likely to encounter pedestrians intently staring at their phones, seemingly unaware of their surroundings.  Although many people acknowledge that they use their phones while walking, a recent insurance company poll finds that most pedestrians are convinced they aren’t distracted by their devices and believe they’re fully aware of what’s going on around them.  That behavior coupled with that denial is especially hazardous.

According to the PEMCO Insurance Northwest Poll, 42 percent of those surveyed say they talk, text or read messages on their phone while walking down the sidewalk or crossing the street.  But despite admitting such fixation on their phones, 64 percent of residents in Washington and Oregon insist they’re rarely or never distracted while afoot.

But a vast majority of drivers are not so convinced. The same poll revealed that 89 percent of respondents say they witness pedestrians who aren’t paying attention at least part of the time.

Consider this common scene:  A pedestrian has the right-of-way at an intersection and a vehicle is waiting for them to make a move.  But instead of crossing the street, the pedestrian seems more engrossed with their phone than the traffic they’re holding up by their presence.  According to the poll, just 4 percent say they ever stand at an intersection without crossing while 10 times as many respondents (46 percent) say they’ve witnessed this exact scenario in person.

“With devices getting bigger — both in actual size and how they’re increasingly integrated into everything we do — it’s natural to spend time on our phones while we’re walking down the street,” said PEMCO Spokesperson Derek Wing.  ”But even though we might feel like we’re paying attention while we’re out and about, these results suggest we may be more distracted than we think — even if we don’t want to admit it.”

Regardless of these pedestrians’ innocent intentions, respondents find distracted walkers frustrating.  Most people (85 percent) say they’re at least a little bothered, while 28 percent say seeing distracted pedestrians bothers them a lot.

Northwest residents here are justified in their concerns. According to the first annual Vision Zero report released by the Portland Bureau of Transportation, 45 people were killed on Portland city streets in 2017, making it one of the deadliest years in more than a decade.  There is a similar uptick in pedestrian deaths nationwide, implicating smart phone distraction.


A recent study by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) found that across the state, 109 people walking were killed by traffic in 2017 — an increase from 105 fatalities in 2016.  A seemingly small increase, but the trend is steadily upward.

“With so much focus on distracted driving, we might forget that pedestrians are at risk, too, especially if they aren’t paying full attention to their surroundings,” Wing said.  “But we can all help make our streets safe and free of distractions by keeping our eyes on what’s happening around us.”

No matter how you slice it, distracted walking incidents are on the rise, and everyone with a cell phone is at risk.  According to a Governors Highway Safety Association report, nearly 6,000 pedestrians were struck and killed by motor vehicles in 2017.  Keep your head up to avoid being one of them.

The biggest danger is amid traffic near intersections, but walking while viewing a phone screen is potentially perilous even in your own home.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at