The Dangers of Distracted Subway Riding

Former Treasury Secretary LaHood made distracted driving a pet cause. The dangers of walking and texting are well documented. But would could straphangers have to fear from smartphones? Plenty, as the death of a S.F. Muni rider illustrates.
October 15, 2013, 9am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Vivian Ho writes about a disturbing fatality on a crowded Muni train in San Francisco on Sept. 23. The light rail car was packed with passengers so engrossed with their smart phones and tablets that they demonstrated "collective inattention to imminent danger". One passenger in the car had wielded a .45-caliber pistol - waving it visibly - and no one noticed until the gunman fired his weapon, killing 20-year-old Justin Valdez, a San Francisco State University student, as he exited the train "in an apparently random encounter."

The scene was captured on video - not from a passenger's smart phone but from the security camera in the Muni car.

"These weren't concealed movements - the gun is very clear," said District Attorney George Gascón. "These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They're just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They're completely oblivious of their surroundings."

Ho interviews "Jack Nasar, an Ohio State University professor in city and regional planning who specializes in environmental psychology." 

When you used to go into a public place, you assumed everyone was in that place with you," said Nasar. "What happens to public places when everybody is talking on a cell phone? Everyone is somewhere else. Someone can take a gun, hold it up, and nobody will notice it."

Nasar describes the cell phone distraction by walkers and, illustrated by the Valdez murder, transit riders as "missing the cues" that "mimicked the findings of studies of distracted driving."

The San Francisco State police offer a simple recommendation: "pull out cell phones less, pay attention more."

Full Story:
Published on Monday, October 7, 2013 in San Francisco Chronicle
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