It's one of the most annoying things in the modern city. You're on the pavement stuck behind a dawdling walker, whose attention isn't even on the street ahead. Instead their head is tilted downwards, eyes firmly locked on their smartphone.
I can feel your blood pressure slowly rising as you read that sentence. But be honest. Have you never done it? Walked while looking at something on your phone? Maybe just replying with a few words to a quick text? Or perhaps picking what music to play while you're on the way to the tube? Pat yourself on the back if you're pure and keep your phone firmly in your pocket, but for the rest of us, one unanswered question lingers. How dangerous is what we're doing?
A national news story
I say 'unanswered' because the trend hasn't received much attention in the UK. One incident briefly became national news in June 2019, when a judgement was handed out from the courts deciding a case in which a cyclist collided with a pedestrian who'd stepped into the road looking at her phone. The cyclist was ordered to pay £100,000 in damages to the pedestrian.
This received a lot of outrage online, and implicitly in the media too, which was abnormally sympathetic to a cyclist. The consensus in public was that as the pedestrian walked into the road and didn't pay attention to her surroundings, why should the cyclist have to pay her? In fact, people felt so aggrieved by the decision, that over £55,000 (at the time of writing) was raised on behalf of the cyclist, to help him pay legal fees.
Does this mean the law doesn't care if a pedestrian is looking at their phone? Not at all. The judge ruled that both parties were 50% to blame for the accident — the pedestrian for walking into the road while not paying attention, and the cyclist for attempting to swerve around her instead of stopping. The pedestrian originally asked for much higher damages.
I spoke to personal injury lawyer David Johnson at DAC Beachcroft, who clarified this ruling. "Where a pedestrian hit by a vehicle is proven to have strayed into the road without checking that the way is clear, the judge will often reduce his or her compensation award on the grounds of contributory negligence."
Contributory negligence means that the injured party is partially to blame for their own injury, which is why damages are reduced. Cases of pedestrians being injured while looking at their phones are currently rare, so the cyclist's case could form a precedent for future incidents. However, Johnson explained that a similar precedent is already in place, thanks to intoxication.
"Where a pedestrian’s claim is reduced for contributory negligence because they have strayed into the road without checking that it was safe for them to do so, the explanation for that will often be that they were drunk, engaged in high jinks, distracted by something or simply not concentrating on where they were going. However, the explanation for their actions is really a secondary consideration. Mobile phones and other hand held devices simply represent another distraction that can serve to explain how pedestrians may come to put themselves in an unsafe situation."
Johnson also brought up 2016's hottest fad: Pokemon Go. He pointed out that there were accidents reported as a result of people being distracted by what their screen was projecting onto the real world rather than the world around them. If tech companies continue to push augmented reality, such cases could become more frequent.
An experiment in the City
However, that is just one case. We cannot ascertain how frequent a problem it is on London's roads by looking at it. If anything, that it featured so heavily in the media is a sign of its rarity.
In October 2018, the City of London did a study at Ludgate Circus to ascertain how many people crossed the road while looking at their phone. The results: 4.5% of pedestrians walked into the road distracted from their surroundings by a smartphone. Or to be more precise 1,800 crossings a day (this number may include people crossing multiple times, phone in hand).
To clarify, these are all pedestrians crossing the road at a formal crossing, and presumably the vast majority are doing so when the lights are in their favour. However, as the papers so frequently like to remind us, cyclists break lights all the time. Questions remain over more ambiguous pieces of infrastructure. What about a shopping car park? Johnson dug up a case for us where a woman hit by a vehicle in a car suffered serious injuries. She was not using her phone, but the judge made clear that had she been, contributory negligence would have entered the equation.
Finally, there is a wide-held view that while looking at your phone while crossing the road isn't safe, doing so on the pavement is acceptable. Londonist did some research on this back in 2014, where we found that 22% of pedestrians were distracted — through talking, interacting with the screen, or using headphones — by smartphones. While this study wasn't strictly scientific, the conclusion that more people feel comfortable using their phones on the pavement than in the road isn't a farfetched one.
However looking at your phone while walking anywhere poses its own risks. Someone on the team here at Londonist recently fell while walking eyes glued to their phone. He simply tripped on the pavement because he was distracted. He suffered no serious injuries, just a scraped knee. But his phone was cracked, which impeded his ability to look at it while walking... at least for the next few days, until he got it fixed.
"Pedestrians don't run other pedestrians down"
I talked to the head of TfL's Vision Zero initiative, Stuart Reid. Vision Zero "is the intention to eliminate deaths and serious injuries from the transport network in London." Therefore it's the natural department to talk to when it comes to a change in pedestrian behaviour that could cause accidents on London's roads — many of London's major strategic roads are operated by TfL.
But while Vision Zero isn't disinterested in this trend, or any shift in pedestrian behaviour, it certainly isn't its priority. "Well, we are taking the approach that if you're going to make the city safer for everybody, you have to tackle the sources of risk, you have to reduce danger at source. And the danger fundamentally comes from moving vehicles, in an urban environment."
Stuart isn't wrong. Let's work off the old adage: it takes two to make an accident. Two distracted pedestrians walking into each other are almost certainly going to do less damage to either individual, than a reckless driver colliding with one distracted pedestrian. Or as Stuart says, "to put it crudely, pedestrians don't run other pedestrians down."
Is there evidence to back up what Stuart is saying? Pedestrian fatalities on London's streets are declining. In 2018 there were 56 pedestrian deaths on London streets compared to 73 deaths in 2017, a drop of 23%. Stuart believes this is mainly due to lowering speed limits and new braking technologies in cars. That trend bucks what's happening nationally. In Great Britain there were pedestrian 454 deaths in 2018, which is a dip of 3% on the previous year, but 2018's number is higher than it has been over multiple points in the last ten years (see above).
Stateside, pedestrian deaths aren't just holding steady, they're rising. And public bodies in the US such as the National Safety Council have been linking the rise in pedestrian deaths specifically to phone usage,
Retraining or adapting?
One city in America took stringent action. In Montclair, California, you can be fined $100 dollars for being distracted by your phone when crossing the road. That doesn't just mean looking at a phone screen — it includes talking on the phone and listening to music with headphones. The only exceptions are for 911 calls.
That's an extreme option, and one that has been criticised. The Montclair scheme takes the stance that pedestrians need to be trained out of walking distractedly... but there is another way. What if instead of changing pedestrians' behaviour, cities adapt to it?
There have been a few short-run PR stunts aimed at designing infrastructure for distracted walking. One back in 2008 gave lampposts padding, to protect people if they walked into them. A much more recent one in Manchester created a slow lane for those whose pace slows when staring at a phone screen.
A (slightly) more serious one took place in the Netherlands. Lights were placed at ground level for those busy staring at their phones — or as the BBC helpfully labelled them: phone zombies. The lights were red when it was unsafe to cross, before turning green when it became safe. The results were limited, but did suggest that it made crossing safer for all pedestrians, by encouraging even those not using phones to stand a safe distance back from the road.
A movement for undistracted walking
Thus far I've only discussed keeping your phone pocketed when walking from a safety aspect. But there are more reasons not to look at your phone when walking, as Professor Matthew Beaumont of UCL explained to me. "I think that the the politics of the street and of walking has become more urgent, recently."
If you're looking at your phone, you're not engaging with the street around you and you're less aware of the changes the city is going through. Beaumont says you won't be keenly aware of "the way in which, private developers are colonising normally public space."
He also worries that people looking at their phones while walking might change "the ways in which we are constructed as citizens or as subjects by various technologies, like CCTV but also much more insidious ones that are being tried out, [like] facial recognition technology."
That's why Beaumont is starting to lead a movement he calls 'undistracted walking'. In June 2019 he led a tour around Bloomsbury, encouraging participants to really engage with their surroundings. He also wants people to use their smartphones to take pictures of part of their environment that they might have otherwise missed — "turning these weapons of mass distraction against themselves."
A pledge to change
In the time its taken to research this article there have been multiple occasions when, while walking, I've automatically gone to pull my phone out of my pocket. My smartphone feels like an extra limb to me nowadays, so using it while moving seems completely normal. Beaumont says despite being aware of the issues with it, he admits that he too is hypocritical in that sense and suffers from a, "deluded sense that I'm a kind of somehow a better and more civilised user of my smartphone on the streets."
I suffer from the same delusions but I'm trying to fight the urge. Checking a phone isn't worth risking my own personal safety. And anyway, it doesn't feel healthy to disconnect myself from my surroundings to plug into a digital world. If I really need to check Google Maps for directions, I do what a responsible driver should do. Pull in out of the way, and do so in a place that doesn't disrupt what's going on around me, before putting my phone away and moving on.