This week, the Herald on Sunday published an article calling out a dangerous new practice: walking under the influence of a smartphone. According to them, careless walking causes literally dozens of injuries a year and should possibly be criminalised:

Now legislation has been introduced in New Jersey that would slap a US$50 ($72) fine and possible jail time on pedestrians caught using phones while they cross. And in the German city of Augsburg, traffic lights have been embedded in the pavement – so people looking down at their phones will see them.

The Herald on Sunday carried out an unscientific experiment at the busy intersection of Victoria and Queen Sts in central Auckland during the lunchtime rush to discover the scale of the problem here. Observing one of the corners, between 1pm and 1.30pm, we spotted 39 people using their cellphones while crossing.

Some people looked up briefly while crossing. Others kept their heads down, oblivious to what was going on around them.

In the past 10 years, the Accident Compensation Corporation has paid out more than $150,000 for texting-related injuries to a total of 272 Kiwis.

About 90 per cent of injuries were a result of people tripping, falling or walking into things while texting.

Incidentally, I have to admit some guilt here. While I don’t usually walk under the influence of a smartphone, I will often walk around reading a book – a habit I picked up during university. In over a decade of distracted walking, I’ve never fallen over, walked into anything, walked in front of a car, or walked into anybody else.


Let’s take the Herald’s suggestions seriously, and ask whether there is a case to ban other activities that risk injury to participants. Their threshold for “enough harm to consider regulation” appears to be around 27 injuries a year costing ACC at least $15,000.

What else fails that test?

I went to ACC’s injury statistics tool to get a sense. Helpfully, they break out injury claims (and the cost thereof) by cause, activity, and a range of other characteristics.

Here’s a table summarising some of the sports that should be considered for a ban. Rugby and league are obvious candidates, of course, as they result in tens of thousands of claims every year and a total cost in the tens of millions. But would you have suspected that humble, harmless lawn bowls was so hazardous? The sport of septuagenarians injures over 1,000 people a year and costs ACC $1m. Likewise with dancing, golf, and fishing. They’re all too dangerous to be allowed. It’s a miracle that we’ve survived this long with all of this harmful physical activity occurring.

SportAverage new claims per annum (2011-2015)Average annual cost (2011-2015)
Rugby union56,842$65.4m
Rugby league12,556$15.3m
Lawn bowls1,134$1.0m

But it doesn’t stop with sports. Your home is full of seemingly innocuous items that are eager to kill or maim you. Your stove, for example. Boiling liquids cause almost 5,000 injuries a year, costing ACC $1.9 million. We should definitely ban home cooking. Leave it to the professionals, for pity’s sake! Lifting and carrying objects at home is even more dangerous – over 100,000 claims a year. So don’t pick up that tea-tray or box of knick-knacks: call in someone who’s suitably qualified for handling such dangerous objects.

And let’s not even mention the toll taken by falls, except to strenuously argue for a ban on showers, bathroom tiles, and private ownership of ladders.

Cause of accidentAverage new claims per annum (2011-2015)Average annual cost (2011-2015)
Boiling liquids (at home)4,680$1.9m
Lifting / carrying objects (at home)103,798$95.1m
Falls (at home)310,292$323.4m
Driving-related accidents (on roads/streets)13,322$173.2m

Finally, it’s important to remember an important bit of context that the Herald doesn’t mention: Distracted walking is a far, far lesser danger than driving cars (distracted or not). In the average year, ACC receives 13,300 claims for driving-related accidents and pays out a total of $173 million for people who have been injured or killed. That far, far exceeds the injury toll associated with texting while walking.

On the whole, you’re more likely to be killed or injured while in a car than you are while walking. This chart, taken from a Ministry of Transport report on “risk on the road”, shows deaths or injuries in motor vehicle crashes per million hours spent travelling. Drivers experience 8 deaths/injuries per million hours. The two safest modes are walking (4.6 deaths/injuries per million hours) and public transport (0.7).

Because different travel modes are substitutes, measures to discourage walking – i.e. by penalising people who combine walking with smartphone use – may have the unintended consequence of killing or injuring more people.

MoT risk on the road chart

[As an aside, this chart presents a somewhat misleading picture of cycle safety. People on bicycles experience 31 deaths or injuries per million hours – considerably higher than driving. However, drivers, not cyclists, are at fault in the majority of cycle crashes. According to another recent MoT report, cyclists were primarily responsible for only 22% of crashes. Drivers were partially or fully at fault in the remaining 78% of crashes.

MoT cycle crash fault chart

Consequently, if we provided safe cycle infrastructure that kept people on bikes away from people in cars, cycling would get a lot safer. If we could completely eliminate the risk of people on bikes being hit by cars, cycling would be about as safe as driving.]

To conclude, there are two things that the statistics teach us.

The first is that although injuries and ACC claims are bad, it’s essential to put risks in perspective. And the relevant perspective is this: Walking is a safe mode of travel. It’s remained safe in spite of the invention of the smartphone and the existence of hoons like me who walk around with their nose in a book.

It’s always worth looking for effective ways to improve safety. That’s why Transportblog’s advocated for safe, separated cycleways, and also why it’s taken a positive view on cost-effective investments to improve road safety, like the recent announcement of safety improvements to SH2. But it’s also important to remember that the best way to improve safety is to make it easier to travel in comparatively safe ways. Like walking and public transport.

The second lesson is that there are many activities that can injure us, from rugby to lawn bowls to cooking. Walking while texting is a recent invention, so it may seem newsworthy. But it’s only one of the many hazards that people choose to expose themselves to. If you’re not living in a padded room, you’re probably risking your life in some way or another.

As humans, we’re very prone to focus on risks from new activities while ignoring the effects of things that are already common. Status quo bias is a very real thing – and it doesn’t just apply to transport reporting. It’s the reason why people can, say, oppose new three-storey apartment buildings while being perfectly comfortable with the three-storey houses next door to them.

What risks do you think we should pay more (or less) attention to?

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  1. I bet they saw more than 39 drivers running the red there in half an hour, more than 39 speeding, and more than 39 using their phones.

    Deaths on the road network last year collectively cost us over $1.2b, banning distracted walking is akin to fiddling while Rome burns.

  2. Nice post. TB consistently gets the basic facts right and presents them with insightful analysis. By contrast NZ mainstream media is just woeful.

  3. My view is that we need to enforce MORE bad behaviour, not less.

    I agree with the above commenters – let’s start with drivers. But let’s not finish with drivers. Drivers cause a shedload of harm. I have suggested before that the best thing AT could do with $20m a year is hire 150+ additional enforcement officers (based on a rough guess of total opex per officer of 140k or so). Imagine a 24-hour, rapid response AND proactive driver nuisance minimisation programme. We wouldn’t need additional lanes because our clearways and bus stops would be kept crystal clear. We also need NZ Police shifting focus from speeding onto more common issues, whether that’s red light running, failing to indicate/give way, or just terribly inconsiderate driving. Focus on the probability not the consequences.

    However, distracted walking is not only a potentially harmful activity, it’s also inefficient. Anybody trying to walk down Queen Street knows how difficult it can be to maintain a proper walking speed with all the phone-walkers. I do this literally every day 2-3x and it drives me batty. The other alternative of course is to institute lanes on the Queen St footpath so the slow and distracted walkers can get the eff out of my way.

    1. Distracted walking will sort itself out as people get used to busy footpaths. One of the mysteries of Auckland’s footpaths is that people using them don’t adhere to any consistent choice of sides. Whereas in big US cities people typically walk on the right, and in the UK they walk on the left.

      This is probably due to the fact that Auckland de-urbanised to the point where there simply *weren’t* any busy footpaths. That’s changed for the better over the last decade, but walking habits are probably still sorting themselves out.

      As to your comments on enforcement: I agree that it would be useful for the police to focus more on intersection violations. However, in terms of fixing the structural issues with road safety I’d prefer to adopt better street designs that didn’t encourage people to speed or blast through intersections. Capex is incurred once, while opex is perpetual: that $20m annual would add up mighty fast.

    2. I’ve noticed a huge change in the speed of pedestrian walking in Hong Kong now, compared with 15 years ago. When I stopped over there in the end of the 90s, I was intrigued at how fast the pedestrians moved – i.e. very quickly. Maybe chatting on their Nokia, doing business, but still moving fast.

      But last year – so sloooooow. Everyone on their Samsungs, waddling slowly, eyes down, not so much doing business as wasting time on fb or silly games. Noticeably different. On the pavement, on the MTR, on the trains home, everywhere they’re focused on that little rectangle. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if pedestrian death rates have gone up over that time…

      1. Fascinating Guy. Smartphones really are the transformative technology of our age.

        While using mine does make the time fly by on PT that still doesn’t mean that’s an excuse for needlessly slow services! Best to resist the temptation (addiction!) to check them while walking… Need to keep making our streets more diverting not less so.

  4. How come pedestrians are to blame if they don’t look out for law breaking drivers that ignore pedestrian crossings etc, whereas drivers aren’t expected to have any responsibility for looking out for other drivers that run red lights at junctions? i.e. if you go on a green light and some idiot drives into you there is no suggestion that you are any way to blame because you didn’t look out for them

      1. I am not sure – if a pedestrian using a cell phone steps out onto a zebra crossing, would you really be sure NZ courts wouldn’t place significant bame on them? Our system isn’t very adversarial (and that’s good in principle) but often I wonder whether our system is way too “understanding” of drivers when they cause crashes. They don’t all need to be hounded to jail for mistakes that everyone can make, but if you hit someone with a vehicle, you should be to blame much more than the pedestrian/cycle party, full stop. No matter the circumstances.

        That said, it was the clear opinion of several cycle safety researchers we had over from the Netherlands a month ago that stricter liability for drivers doesn’t do much to improve safety. Infra, infra, infra does safety for pedestrians and cyclists (and a safety culture among drivers, but infra first).

        1. The Road Code is crystal clear about the duty of drivers re: zebra crossings

          “When coming up to pedestrian crossings: slow down and be ready to stop for any pedestrians stepping onto, or on, the crossing – this also includes people obviously waiting to use the crossing”

          Any is pretty clear. You can sprint out in front of a car = car is at fault. Simple. Just needs enforcement.

        2. Incorrect, as it actually also says “Don’t step out suddenly onto a pedestrian crossing [when vehicles are close]”. I bet that gets used as a defense quite a few times.

          Also, enforcement is, in my view, a “bottom of cliff” response. You need some, but it shouldn’t be first port of call. My preferred option is to reduce speeds in whole area and/or place the zebra crossing on a raised table. Infra responses beat enforcement hands down.

        3. The Road Code is also crystal clear about the responsibility of pedestrians “Don’t step out suddenly onto a pedestrian crossing if any vehicles are so close to the crossing that they cannot stop.”

        4. “slow down and be ready to stop” could/should be interpreted as slow down to a speed at which you could safely stop the car even if a pedestrian does suddenly jump out of nowhere onto the pedestrian crossing.
          It is quite common for cars to not slow down at all when approaching pedestrian crossings (even when there are pedestrians waiting to cross!). A culture education change is needed as well as better enforcement. But perhaps the best way of doing this would be to use infrastructure such as raised crossings

        5. Exactly as Nigel puts it. Same as following too close. If you are too fast/too close for pedestrians you are already breaking the law; you should be scanning from well short of the crossing and slowing.

          Remember – a car doing 100km slams on the anchors in the right hand lane of the motorway and car behind hits it = following car at fault

        6. And, no. if a pedestrian walks out in front of a car NOT at a zebra, the ped is at fault. Simple.

          On zebra – 100% car fault
          Not on zebra – 100% ped fault

        7. Sorry, but I get enough anecdotal stories of cyclists / pedestrians acting properly but still being hit or endangered and then being blamed for it – either officially, or by implication – that I remain sceptical of the thrust of your response.

          And enough stories of drivers being let off for mitigating circumstances. Do you really think, for example, if a driver hits a pedestrian on a crossing at night where the street lights failed, the discussion would NOT be all about how he was not to blame? Despite in all likelihod driving at that location daily?

          This kind of thinking percolates throughout society, including to official arms like enforcement and law. I once had a tiff with what turned out to be a plains clothes police officer blocking a footpath with his car – on a non-urgent call delivering court papers, mind you, on a street with lots of free car parking a few meters away. He hadn’t even considered what he was doing, because car dominance (tho he was good to talk to in the end, and hopefully went away less likely to do it in future).

          Driving is king, and until that changes, there will always be the (pedestrian equivalent) of somebody asking “But was he wearing a helmet???”

  5. >> measures to discourage walking – i.e. by penalising people who combine walking with smartphone use – may have the unintended consequence of killing or injuring more people.

    Not to mention the long-term effects on health of less physical activity.

    Also, they were at the intersection of Queen and Victoria. People were crossing with dozens of others at a Barnes dance with all motor traffic stationary. I can’t imagine a less dangerous intersection for slightly distracted crossing. I imagine people look up from their phones a bit more at different types of crossing.

    I’ve been known to read and walk myself – once banged my elbow on a lamp-post. Quick, mandate protective gear!

  6. After another weekend of being exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, lead, arsenic and other heavy metals, and documented to kill over 1,100 NZers annually, I’d have to say all forms of burning off and woodburners.

    There’s a dozen class I carcinogens and over 50 carcinogens in all in woodsmoke. Every 10ug/m3 rise in PM2.5s equals an 80% raise in the incidence of breast cancer. Every 5ug/m3 increases strokes and cardiac arrest by 14%.

    Woodsmoke should be treated like lead and asbestos. We need to get it out of our environment completely.

  7. Its nothing but a stupid Herald reporter from the “Oh I’ve got nothing to report. I know, I’ll invent a local news story using a piece of irrelevant overseas news and dress it up as a really pressing issue” school of journalism.

    Case in point, the real facts on this one are buried near the bottom of the story:

    “Between 2011 and 2015, distractions were factors in two pedestrian deaths. In the same period, 20 people died in crashes where cellphone use was a factor.”

    So here is the truth, distracted walking is [at least] 10 times safer than doing the same in cars.

    I’d expect the true figure for the car crash statistic to be a lot higher as 20 attributed deaths over 5 years sounds low, as its often hard to prove someone was using definitely using a cellphone after a crash [especially if they died in the crash], so 20 attributed deaths is going to at the lower end of the scale. Even 1 is too high for such an avoidable situation.

    And if I was crossing that intersection via the Barnes dance, its not a distracted walker I’d be overly concerned about, but some distracted [texting or cellphone using] car driver causing an accident to himself, adjacent pedestrians and others in nearby cars by their poor judgement of using a cellphone in any form while driving.

    Poor judgement I’d point out, that is only eclipsed by the story’s journalist even picking this topic as a newsworthy item in the first place, and whose judgement is eclipsed in turn by the editors up the Heralds news desk chain, for allowing such piffle to make to print or online in any form.

    1. Well it’s just a typical piece of populist clickbait tabloid nonsense from the Herald. It’s about pedestrians being stupid unlike all of us “normal” people that drive, and it’s about mobile phones, which for some reason the media still finds endlessly fascinating, like they’ve only just been invented. It would have been even more exciting for them if they’d found that some of these people were using Tinder as they crossed the road. Imagine that!

    2. Exactly. News media need a bad story. The only people worse are Universities. Universities used to educate people and do a bit of interesting research. But now they are fear mongers. They need publicity and to get published so everything has to scare the beJesus out of people. Asteroids will hit the earth, pandemic, staple crops will die off, obesity at epidemic levels, oil will run out, antibiotics will fail etc. The bad stories sell papers and launch academic careers.

      1. Actually I seemed to spend a fair bit of my time at university batting off media enquiries about road safety or congestion that completely failed to take into account context; it infuriated me no end that they would get hung up on some trivial stat. E.g. I had a reporter asking for comment because they’d worked out that there is a cycle injury in Chch every three days. I pointed out to them that this equated to one for every 150,000 cycle trips made in the city – fairly good odds I would have thought…

  8. Peter, I’ve never been so tempted to edit a post as I was just now to add this video at the bottom, but I’ll settle for putting it in a comment instead.
    The Lonely Island – YOLO

  9. Great post.
    One thing on cycle safety: in those instances where the cyclist was primarily at fault the number of deaths and injuries would amplified by the present of motor vehicles. Separate cycling from traffic completely and it would quite likely be safer than driving.

    It would be interesting to see a similar breakdown in pedestrian/traffic encounters i.e. how often is the driver and not the walker primarily responsible? Would it be a case where more often than not the driver is responsible?

      1. It’s actually quite hard to get consistent figures! I tried for this post…

        The main benefit of Dutch style road design may be safety for motor vehicle users. In NZ, around 250-300 people die on the roads every year (including pedestrians and cyclists). In the Netherlands, that figure’s more like 550-650 – a bit over twice as much. However, as the Netherlands has 3.8 times as many people, their rate of road deaths is considerably lower.

      2. From my time spent in Holland, I’d say that there is a reasonable amount of cases of people riding bikes and
        1 – wheels slipping on cobblestones
        2 – getting wheels caught on tram tracks
        3 – falling into canals while tipsy
        4 – running into bollards while also talking on the phone while riding…
        but not so much getting flattened by a truck on the side of a highway.

        Statistically, therefore, there may indeed be a reasonable amount of accidents involving bicycles, but the causes and the severity of outcomes are very different. The average car user in Holland may indeed have as much hatred of cyclists as car users often seem to have in NZ, and they may indeed find it irritating that cyclists are everywhere and disobey road rules etc, but for the most part they are separated by a nice row of safety bollards and hence ok.

        1. from my time living in the Netherlands I’d tend to agree with your observations: Lots of minor injuries but the severity of accidents is much reduced.

          Incidentally I don’t think it’s just to do with cycle infrastructure, but also because vehicle speeds are significantly lower (both due to speed limits and road-way design). Most minor streets will be 30 km/hr with arterials at 50km/hr.

          This is definitely the sort of thing that Auckland needs to pick up on. And you won’t find it in an AustRoads manual!

    1. Cycling is already safer than driving for under-20s, and the crash rates on local rural roads are very similar. The problem with the “official” MOT stats is that they lump everyone together regardless of context (e.g. mature adult driving on a protected motorway vs inexperienced kid cycling on a busy urban street); they don’t compare the relative risk for YOU driving on the same street vs cycling on the same street. I did some work a few years ago to tease out the relative crash risks when you broke it down by age groups and road types – not all of them are so stark. See

  10. Good post! Another relevant factor is that distracted pedestrians will tend to damage themselves, distracted drivers other people. In those terms, walking is much, much safer than any other mode – the potential for a pedestrian to damage anything other than him/herself is very limited, not the case for someone controlling (or not) a piece of metal, whether bike, car or bus.

    It would be interesting to know how the new health and safety legislation will apply to road transport (other, inherently safer, modes already have strict safety regimes), and in particular who the PCBU (person in charge of business or undertaking, responsible for safe operation) is with respect to any particular piece of road, if the concept applies.

  11. A German city has introduced ground-based traffic lights are the people on their mobile phone see the pedestrian crossing lights while they are looking down.

    1. Every car must have rescue yellow all across the front; after all no one can apparently see a train without this, how are they expected to see a much smaller car? Especially those new matt black ones. Oh and around the doors, how anyone works out where to get in these things currently is amazing…

  12. On the real issue of how to get motorists to stop using their phones, I reckon a ‘Crusher Collins’ approach is the way to go. No amount of demerit points or on-the-spot fines is going to make a difference, but immediate confiscation and destruction by lump hammer of the offending mobile device might actually be a worthwhile deterrent.

    1. That’s definitely what we need: maybe chop of their thumbs too? Don’t want them just going out and buying another phone.

      1. I often joke the solution to red light runners is to catch the culprits and hang them from the lights. Sort of a warning at every intersection

  13. A look at heart of the city’s ped counters shows that just up from Queen/Vic intersection shows that in Friday there were 3,200 people walking on one side of the road, probably more at the intersection. Using that figure though, 39 people out of 1,600 over 30 mins or 2%.

  14. It really is a disappointment that this blog continues to promote the right of people to walk into traffic without looking, or run red lights if on a bike.

    All road users have a responsibility to behave in a safe manner on the roads, be they driving, riding or walking. It’s also commonsense.

    Quit defending darwin award applicants. You really let yourself down by doing so.

    1. Apparently you completely missed the point of this post. First of all, the Herald’s little survey covered people who were walking across the street *during the pedestrian phase*. There’s nothing unsafe about doing that while looking at a smartphone… unless someone illegally enters the intersection in a car.

      Second of all, approximately 40 times more people injure themselves playing lawn bowls – lawn bowls! – than by distracted walking. There is absolutely no reason to care about people doing something that causes less injuries than lawn bowls. To say otherwise is simple concern trolling.

      1. Peter, it is the law to look both ways when crossing the road. You are therefore defending illegal activity. It’s not trolling to call you out on it.

        Crossing the road without looking is one of the most dangerous things a pedestrian can do.

        1. It’s entirely possible to look both ways and then look back at the phone once you’re satisfied that it is, in fact, safe to cross *during the pedestrian phase*.

          Anyway, if you’re so concerned about safety, why aren’t you inveighing against people climbing improperly secured ladders? That’s *way* more dangerous than crossing the road. See, I can concern troll too!

        2. Geoff it appears you missed the part where Peter writes: “But it doesn’t stop with sports. Your home is full of seemingly innocuous items that are eager to kill or maim you. Your stove, for example. Boiling liquids cause almost 5,000 injuries a year, costing ACC $1.9 million. We should definitely ban home cooking. Leave it to the professionals, for pity’s sake! Lifting and carrying objects at home is even more dangerous – over 100,000 claims a year. So don’t pick up that tea-tray or box of knick-knacks: call in someone who’s suitably qualified for handling such dangerous objects. And let’s not even mention the toll taken by falls, except to strenuously argue for a ban on showers, bathroom tiles, and private ownership of ladders.”

          Note the key word in the last sentence “ladders”.

          The act of reading requires that we open not only our hearts and minds, but also our eyes.

        3. Geoff, where’s your evidence that people didn’t look both ways when crossing the road? As Peter notes, the Herald survey doesn’t provide any information on that. Or do you expect pedestrians to constantly scan the road around them 360 degrees while walking? Sounds rather dangerous IMO!

          Seems to me that you’re jumping to unsubstantiated conclusions. Both about the pedestrians involved and also this blog’s attitude to safety.

          Tut tut.

        4. I look both ways at a zebra, notice cars fast approaching, and they hit me – despite the fact they have to give way
          Not my job to enable illegal behaviour

    2. Not ‘run red lights on a bike’. The term is ‘use pedestrian phase in signalised intersection’. Two very different things and if you can’t work the difference out then so be it.

      1. Both behaviours are illegal and antisocial, putting other road users at risk, so no difference there.

        1. That is the theory, but in practice on a lot of intersections crossing during the green phase for cars is just too dangerous. If a crossing has a Barnes dance then it is almost always safer to cross during the pedestrian phase. If you ride slowly you’re unlikely to kill any pedestrians.

        2. Sorry, but the “it’s too dangerous to ride on the road so I have to ride on the footpath” argument, of which this seems to be an example, is just self-defeating special pleading.

          Self defeating, because those doing it are simultaneously demonstrating their disrespect for fellow road users on foot (and for the law), and demonstrating by lack of numbers on the road that there’s no need for cycle facilities (what’s really required); special pleading, because all other road users in general stick to the rules, not taking matters into their own hands on a pretty flimsy pretext (yes I know from experience that cycling is not that safe, but the chances of getting hit at any particular intersection are very low).

          Footpaths are for pedestrians – and it’s the only space they’ve got. If you do choose to use a footpath, have the common courtesy to turn yourself into one of them, by getting off and pushing. Not that hard, eh?

  15. If my H&S general manager (yes its a job) had her way, all drivers would need to fill up a 20 pages form before each trip and tick 50 boxes.

  16. I think we are getting tied up in semantics here. The original article did not refer to the average pedestrian fully aware of their surroundings, they were referring to pedestrians so engrossed in their smart phones they didn’t have a clue where they were, and that included stepping out onto the road pedestrian crossing or not. Like it or not, there is only one winner when a vehicle hits a pedestrian, and like it or not, it is up to the pedestrian to act in such a manner that they are not endangering their own lives.

    1. And a greater obligation on all road users, to act in in a manner that they are not endangering others’ lives.

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