Pedestrians: the new Public Enemy No. 1

pedestrians1Ever wondered how you’d feel if one of your fellow pedestrians was seriously injured, or even killed, because you’d inadvertently knocked them into the path of oncoming traffic?

It’s a scenario most right-minded people wouldn’t have given much thought to. Even if you tried, you probably wouldn’t even come close to imagining how you’d actually feel without experiencing it.

If you can try to imagine how you might feel, take it a step further and imagine how you’d feel knowing that it had only happened because you were looking at your phone instead of watching where you were going.

And it could happen so easily.

Pedestrians are often described as “vulnerable”. I’m often more inclined to describe an ever-growing number of them as ignorant fools and idiots.

Regular rant-lovers may recall me having a big old moan about this very thing nearly two years ago. Sadly, the problem’s gotten worse rather than better.

Being in such close proximity to the road undoubtedly leaves pedestrians uniquely exposed to hazards which even those with their wits about them can fall foul of. So what of the growing number of pedestrians who, more often than not, don’t have their wits about them?

According to data from all over Australia and New Zealand, since 2009 one in seven road deaths was a pedestrian. More than a quarter of all pedestrian deaths occur between 5pm and 9pm, while in Sydney they peak on weekdays between 8am and 10am and between 2pm and 7pm. While Transport for NSW says that pedestrian fatalities are more likely to occur on Fridays and Saturdays, injuries are more prevalent during the week.

Historically, much of the evidence – particularly where fatalities are concerned – has pointed to alcohol. But pedestrians have a new enemy. It’s approached silently, as if by stealth, yet most have actively, if unwittingly, embraced it. It has the potential to be just as dangerous as any other cause of pedestrian injury or fatality and the scale of the problem has increased exponentially over the past five years. Yet it seems Sydney’s pedestrians have yet to notice that they’ve become their own worst enemy.

Back in April, during a week of horrendous weather, they were everywhere! I watched a guy ambling casually across a busy CBD street against the ‘Don’t Walk’ signal and into the way of a rapidly approaching bus; I saw a girl trip as she boarded a train; and a woman next to me became all indignant after failing to negotiate a curbside and almost being collected by a cyclist – and she tutted and mumbled under her breath as if it was the cyclist’s fault. All three had one thing in common: they were more focussed on the mobile device in their hands than on their immediate surroundings. The weather only heightened the potential risks, but it didn’t necessarily feed into the issue, which is equally prevalent whatever the weather.

pedestrians4How has our society come to this? What can be so pressingly important that it takes focus away from the art of movement? Even before mobile phones, it was an art form that many people only had a tenuous grip on at best. Today it’s never more obvious than when you watch the swarming masses of phone-obsessed zombies who, every day, meander alongside, into and across our downtown city streets, walking in a disparate variety of styles and, quite often, in what appears to be no fixed direction.

Walking behind someone who’s talking on their phone is frequently like watching an alcoholic trying to walk the line to prove sobriety; but pedestrians looking down at whatever they consider to be more important than what’s right in front of them take it to a whole new level. Phone-talkers can be mildly amusing to watch, but at least they can (mostly) see what’s ahead of them, even if they’re patently unable to either focus on it or make rational, timely decisions in relation to it; phone-lookers are another story altogether.

I only realised how bad the situation was after conducting a series of experiments with some of my fellow morning commuters during 2014. I say “with”, but it was really more a case of “on” than “with”, since they were all so focussed on the screen in their hands that they weren’t even aware anything was happening until it was just about to.

Very simply, I’d identify a phone-looker and walk beside them for a way, close enough to influence their direction without getting creepily close. Then I’d gradually guide them towards some obstruction or other – a wall, a doorway, an escalator, signage, a post box, a bin, basically anything that they could fall over, crash into or otherwise connect with. I then observed the point at which they finally noticed said obstruction and how quickly they could pull themselves up before making contact with it.

pedestrians-phone-nophonelanesSlightly sociopathic? Maybe – it’s quite addictive. Of course, I’d never have allowed any experiment to result in injuries. Indeed, the ‘worst’ (and certainly the funniest) outcome of any of my experiments was a girl crashing into a café’s footpath menu board. Ostensibly the board came off second best, ending up three doors down and not really advertising very much at all; meanwhile, in her haste to locate a nearby hole in the ground that might open up and swallow her, the red-faced girl ignored the fate of the board and scurried off.

Ultimately the results spoke for themselves: if my ‘subjects’ weren’t able to notice what I was doing and were only just (in most cases) able to avoid the hazards toward which I’d subtly guided them, how many other hazards were they also at risk of not seeing or not avoiding? How many other hazards were they, in fact, creating? Extrapolate this out across the hundreds of thousands of pedestrians walking our city streets every single day and, arguably, my findings were just the tip of an extraordinarily large – and growing – iceberg.

What happened to marvelling at the wonders of life and the beauty of the world around us? With all the focus give to an endless cycle of inane garbage on mobile devices, it’s as if nobody wants to actually see anything anymore.

One day, it’s going to hurt someone.