Windshield bias among transportation professionals shifts safety burden onto pedestrians

By Chris McCahill

Transportation professionals who spend more time behind the wheel tend to believe distracted walking plays an overstated role in pedestrian deaths, according to a new Rutgers study. This belief can steer professionals toward trying to correct pedestrian behavior, rather than focusing on the change that would reduce pedestrian deaths most: lowering vehicle speeds.

For this study, researchers interviewed 278 practitioners at transportation conferences, ranging from Walk/Bike/Places to the Transportation Research Board annual meeting. More than one-third of respondents considered distracted walking a major issue, estimating that it accounts for 40 percent of pedestrian deaths.

According to most studies, however, distracted walking is a minor factor in pedestrian deaths, with the best estimates placing the actual number around five to ten percent of deaths. While distraction does seem to affect the way people walk, its impact on where and when they cross the street, whether they look both ways, and even whether they’re more likely to be hit is unclear. The most common form of distraction cited in studies—listening to music—has no known effect.

In contrast, distracted driving is “incredibly risky” and “troublingly widespread,” according to the authors of this study.

The survey also found that practitioners who predominantly drive or spend less time in pedestrian-oriented spaces tend to think of distracted walking as more of a problem, a pattern the authors call “windshield bias.” These individuals are also more likely to endorse pedestrian education and enforcement, and less likely to support lowering speed limits or designing for lower speeds.

“The emphasis on individual-level solutions among the survey sample is particularly troubling,” according to the authors, “because as transportation practitioners, our respondents are uniquely positioned to make systematic changes to improve safety.” Education is far less effective at preventing deaths than infrastructural changes, claim the authors, adding that only the latter can make streets safer for the most vulnerable road users such as children, the elderly, and those with impairments.

Media accounts and scholarly research help perpetuate the skewed perspective underscored in this research, partly because the concept of distracted walking is easier to understand than changes in infrastructure. But better use of data in decision making can make a difference, according to the researchers, while experiences like walking audits can help provide practitioners with a more complete view of safety issues.

Chris McCahill is the Deputy Director at SSTI.