Are You Guilty of Distracted Walking?

There’s a lot of talk about distracted driving, but what about distracted pedestrians?

It might seem patently unfair to talk about pedestrians ‘causing’ accidents. After all, cars outweigh the average human by two tons and any injuries resulting from a collision between a person and a car are likely to impact the pedestrian far more severely.

Injuries aside, however, being distracted while you’re walking can impact the outcome of a potential lawsuit, if your injuries are important. These are called ‘contributory factors’.

Let’s say you’re texting while you’re walking, step off the curb without looking and get hit by a car that was already in the process of turning when you stepped in front of them.

If you sue the driver, their insurance company will look to minimize the payout and one of the ways they do that is to look for contributory factors. In this case, it would be the fact that you were walking distracted because you were listening to music on your mobile device and walking, oblivious to your surroundings.

So back to the notion of the two-ton car vs. the 150 pound person, does it seem fair that you could be considered at least partly culpable in this accident simply because of being distracted?

Switch positions!

Imagine you’re the driver. You looked both ways and start making your right turn, completely legally, when someone who is looking down at their phone pops up and steps right in front of your car. You slam the breaks, but it’s too late. How would you feel as the driver? Would you feel that the pedestrian should bear some responsibility for the accident? Probably.

The Ontario Brain Injury Association noted that in 2012, 40 percent of Acquired Brain Injury survivors sustained their brain injury as a result of an automobile collision, though not necessarily as a pedestrian. (Source). In 2018, 38 pedestrians were struck and killed by vehicles in the GTA. (Source). And the numbers are climbing.

We don’t walk around in big bubble suits, so you have to assume that when you are a pedestrian, you could be in a collision with a vehicle and if that happens, you have a good chance of sustaining a serious injury. With that in mind, why would you walk distracted?

Is Distracted Walking Really A Problem?

According to a 2016 study done by what was then State Farm Insurance (now Desjardins), 4 out of 10 Canadians admit to walking and texting at the same time. When you add that to the 45% who cross roads while wearing headphones and the 70% who jaywalk, there are a lot of ways that pedestrians can end up getting seriously hurt.

A University of British Columbia conducted a study on distracted walking that proved interesting. They set up cameras at one specific intersection in Kamloops, capturing footage of 357 pedestrians, over the course of two days. The research is meant to help create models to understand pedestrian behaviour. But the computer models of today can’t factor in the more erratic walking styles of distracted pedestrians.

“We found that more than a third of pedestrians were distracted by their cellphones, texting and reading or talking and listening,” said lead author Rushdi Alsaleh, a PhD candidate in civil engineering at UBC. “Distracted pedestrians had more trouble maintaining their walking speed and gait and took longer to cross the road, increasing the potential for conflict with vehicles.”

The researchers also found that people who were texting and walking:

  • Took shorter steps without slowing their step frequency;
  • Had more unstable movements;
  • Had more disruptions in their walking;

In cities like Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, attempts have been made to legislate distracted walking, but so far those attempts haven’t come to much. Laws against distracted walking are not unprecedented, however. In Honolulu Hawaii, police are authorized to fine distracted walkers under their 2017 ‘Zombie Law’.

If the number of pedestrians who are hit continues to rise, and some contributory negligence is found in the form of distracted walking in many of those cases, it’s only a matter of time before other municipalities throughout North America and beyond take the same tack.

How To Stay Safe As A Pedestrian

First? Don’t text and walk. Just don’t. Even if you never get hit by a car, you could end up like the person who falls into a fountain or the one that gives themselves a concussion by walking straight into a pole.

Other safety measures?

  • While technically not illegal (although there is confusion because another section of the traffic law states that pedestrian fines not exceed $50, but I digress), jaywalking is a problem and, while 70% of people admit to doing it (from the study above), it’s also a great way to get hit. A car isn’t expecting you to pop out in the middle of a high traffic area.
  • While drivers travelling in both directions are supposed to wait until you’re fully crossed at a crossover before proceeding, many aren’t aware of this more recent change to the Highway Traffic Act. It’s safer to assume that they DON’T know this and keep your eyes open!
  • Don’t assume that just because your light is green, it’s safe for you to cross. Make eye contact with the driver so that you know that they have seen you and don’t ignore the countdown clocks. Technically, you’re not supposed to even start walking across if the countdown has begun, since the point of the system is to allow drivers to turn right without worrying about pedestrians. It’s not a perfect system however, with many countdowns beginning the second the light turns green, giving the pedestrian no time at all. The point is that racing to beat the countdown might not be in your best interest.
  • Always walk facing traffic if there are no sidewalks. It’s better for you to be able to see what’s coming toward you, allowing you more opportunity to react.
  • Skip the earphones. If you can’t hear what’s going on around you, that’s a major sensory loss that could help avoid an accident.

What Should You Do If You’re a Pedestrian, Hit By A Car?

I wrote a blog on what to do if you’re a pedestrian and you’re hit by a car here, but allow me to provide you with the Coles notes. The steps aren’t that different than if you are in a collision while driving a car, but keep these in mind:

  1. Secure any witnesses until the police arrive. Their statements could make a big difference. Make sure you file a police report and get the report number so you can get a copy. Also, get the officer’s information (name, badge number, division).
  2. Get checked out at the hospital or by your own doctor. Even seemingly minor injuries can get worse when the shock wears off. Tell the doctor EVERYTHING you’re feeling, no matter how unimportant it may seem.
  3. Get in touch with your car insurance company within seven days. If the vehicle didn’t have any major damage you can bet the driver won’t mention it!
  4. Call a personal injury lawyer. It’s not that you’re going to run out and sue the driver, but getting in touch with a lawyer at the outset can help ensure that you are collecting all the necessary documentation and taking all precautions. That way, if your injuries end up being more severe, or if they already are, you’ve got someone on your side.

Whether you drive, cycle or walk, we all need to be paying more attention to what we’re doing because the consequences otherwise can be serious and impact the rest of your life.


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