What Are the Effects of Distracted Walking?

I’ve written on here before about the psychology of driving and the psychology of biking. So it seems only fair that I dedicate a post to one of the most common forms of urban transportation: walking!

Walking may not require a license, but it can take just as much vigilance as driving a car. There are obstacles to be avoided and threats to be monitored, both major and minor.

Still, it’s not uncommon to see people walking with their eyes glued to a phone or totally engrossed in a conversation. Just yesterday I saw a woman walking down the street reading a novel. It makes you wonder: what are the effects of walking with your attention turned away from your surroundings?

Of course, where there’s a question about people’s behavior, there’s probably a group of psychologists somewhere who have tried to answer it. In this case, researchers from the Netherlands have just published a paper titled Walking Without Awareness, where they report the results of a study on – well, exactly what the title says.

In their study, the researchers placed a sign in the middle of a sidewalk in downtown Utrecht. A picture of the sign they used can be found here.

The sign says “Welcome to St. Jacobs Street” in Dutch. But the purpose of the sign wasn’t really just to welcome people to a particular street in Utrecht. Rather, the researchers observed pedestrians’ behaviors in navigating around the sign, then interviewed the pedestrians about their walking experiences.

It turned out that distracted walking was quite common. Of the 234 pedestrians who the researchers “welcomed” to St. Jacobs Street, more than half (54 percent) admitted being completely unaware of having walked by the sign.

The surprising thing, though, was that none of these pedestrians actually bumped into the sign. People reported being distracted by different activities, such as internal mind-wandering or using a phone. Yet these people still didn’t bump into the sign – and in fact, they navigated around the sign in the same way as more aware pedestrians, not passing any closer to the sign and not avoiding it in a different way.

Other factors such as how familiar people were with the street also didn’t seem to affect people’s ability to avoid the obstacle. These findings led the researchers to conclude that “there was no evidence that walking without awareness necessarily results in risk,” maybe because walking is a “highly automated, skilled behavior.”

Granted, it’s still not advisable to walk down the street with your face buried in a smartphone. For obvious reasons, the researchers weren’t able to test how distracted pedestrians reacted to unexpected, truly dangerous events such as a car cutting them off in a crosswalk.

That said, it seems that pedestrians, even those who walk without being aware of their surroundings, might deserve some credit. People are apparently really, really good at walking. It may be that, at least on a relatively pedestrian-friendly downtown Utrecht street, walking while engaged in another activity doesn’t necessarily translate into being less safe.