Distracted drivers, their eyes downward on their smartphones instead of on the road ahead, are a well-known sight on Canadian streets.
But pedestrians on sidewalks and crosswalks are no better as distracted walking is on the rise.
To find out what makes careless pedestrians tick, engineers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have analyzed how using mobile devices affects walkers’ behaviour.
The researchers — Rushdi Alsaleh, Tarek Sayed and Mohamed Zaki — used automated video analysis to examine the movement and walking behaviour of pedestrians at a busy four-way intersection in Kamloops.
The engineers mounted three cameras at the intersection, capturing the movements of 357 pedestrians over a two-day period.
The research models the behaviour of people and cars to explain how accidents occur, said Sayed.
“We hope our methods can be used to help planners build safer roads and engineers design smarter autonomous vehicles,” he said.
Their video analysis tool can decode pedestrian behaviour more accurately than other methods, said Sayed.
“Most pedestrian computer models do not account for the unusual walking behaviour of pedestrians distracted by phones,” he said.
The researchers found more than one-third of pedestrians were distracted by their cellphones while texting and reading, or talking and listening.
“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,” said Alsaleh.
The movements of distracted pedestrians also differed depending on how they used their devices. If they were texting or reading, they took shorter steps without slowing their frequency. But if they were talking, they took slower steps without changing the length of their strides.
Pedestrians distracted by texting or reading had more unstable movements and disruptions as they walked, compared to those talking on their phones.
When they encountered motor vehicles, pedestrians acted differently if they were distracted, said Zaki.
“To avoid oncoming vehicles, they reduced their speeds by adjusting their step frequency, while non-distracted pedestrians adjusted both the frequency and length of their steps,” he said.
The researchers say their findings can make driverless cars safer. If programmed to recognize distracted pedestrians from their walking patterns, an autonomous vehicle will be able to anticipate pedestrian behaviours and take the necessary evasive actions to avoid an accident.
Some demographic groups have more of a tendency for distracted walking than others. As the UBC researchers diplomatically put it, “safety concerns attributed to pedestrian distraction are more evident in the younger population and college students than in other segments of the population.”
Young adults, they found, are frequently involved with their smartphones while performing other activities.
“The limiting effect that phone usage has on the cognitive functions of pedestrians is (because a pedestrian can’t) manage more than one involved task at one time,” the researchers stated.
Meanwhile, 1,200 miles east of Kamloops in Winnipeg, a grassroots group of business owners, architects and planners is hoping to bring River City’s pedestrians and vehicles closer together.
The Coalition for Portage and Main is lobbying Winnipeggers to vote “yes” in a fall referendum to re-open the iconic downtown intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street to street-level pedestrian traffic. Portage and Main are major arterial streets and regional mixed-use corridors. Both roads are very wide: Main has nine lanes north of the intersection and eight lanes south.
Since 1979, pedestrians have had to take underground walkways to get to the other side of either street.
While the subterranean passages can be a welcome refuge from winter’s wind and cold, they are dark, dingy, sometimes intimidating and always less convenient than a 20-second walk across the street, said the coalition.
The referendum vote will take place at the same time as the city’s elections for mayor and councillors on Oct. 24. Voters will be asked a simple question: “Do you support the opening of Portage and Main to pedestrian crossings? Yes/No.”
“We haven’t had a full discussion as a community about opening up Portage and Main,” said coalition organizer and spokesman Brent Bellamy, a Winnipeg architect. “The referendum gives us the opportunity to have that discussion.”
On the other hand, commuters and truckers are happy to be able to drive through the intersection without having to watch out for pedestrians, whether they’re distracted or not.
Winnipeggers on the “no” side of the question say opening up Portage and Main isn’t worth the money.
Councillor Jeff Browaty said Winnipeg has other spending priorities that are more important. In addition, he said, opening up the intersection could jeopardize the safe movement of the thousands of vehicles that go through Portage and Main every day.