Against Victim Blaming

One common scapegoat for rising pedestrian death rates is "distracted walking." But there is little reason to believe that smartphone-wielding pedestrians are a major cause of roadway carnage.

March 9, 2021, 7:00 AM PST

By Michael Lewyn @mlewyn

Pedestrian Safety

VDB Photos / Shutterstock

As I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, the number of pedestrians killed by cars and trucks in the United States has increased by 50 percent over the past decade. One common excuse for doing nothing about this problem is to blame the victim: in particular, to claim that the real problem is "distracted pedestrians." According to this theory, pedestrians are dying in large numbers because the victims are too busy looking at their phones to notice oncoming vehicles.

But this theory does not explain the growth of pedestrian fatalities, for three reasons. First, there is no evidence that deaths involving distracted walking cause a significant amount of deaths. For example, one 2014 article in Governing begins with the hysterical headline, "Too Many Pedestrians Injured By Looking At Their Phones." From that headline, you might think that thousands of pedestrians have been killed while texting. But the article itself states that the federal government attributes only half a dozen deaths to electronic devices. 

Second, pedestrian injuries disproportionately affect low-income and elderly walkers, who are less likely to own smartphones. According to the Pew Research Center, only 53 percent of persons over 65, and 71 percent of persons earning under $30,000, own smartphones; by contrast, over 90 percent of persons under 29 and persons earning over $75,000 per year own smartphones. If smartphones were a major cause of the problem, younger and more affluent Americans would be more likely to be victimized by speeding cars.

Third, smartphone use is just as common in European nations as it is in the United States; smartphone use is higher in Sweden and the Netherlands than in the United States, and almost as high in France and England. According to Pew, 81 percent of U.S. adults own a smartphone, compared to 87 percent of Dutch, 86 percent of Swedes, 78 percent of Germans, 76 percent of British, and 75 percent of French. If distracted walking were such a major problem, European traffic deaths would have risen at the same time American traffic deaths have risen. But, in fact, European traffic deaths have declined by over a third over the past decade, while American traffic deaths have risen. So the link between smartphones and pedestrian crashes is at best unproven, and at worst very weak. 

Michael Lewyn

Michael Lewyn is an associate professor at Touro College, Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center, in Long Island. His scholarship can be found at

A conceptual rendering of three high-speed rail trains. The middle train is orange; the other two are black.

The California High-Speed Rail Project Illustrates America’s Transit Issues

Slow progress and a bloated budget have plagued the High-Speed Rail project linking San Francisco to Los Angeles, exposing deeper issues with American transit projects.

May 22, 2022 - Eric Carlson

Parent and child walking, holding hands on mixed-use trail with trees

What Role Does Health Care Play in Community Development?

Cities are economically diverse and require accessible health care systems, but this can be challenging to implement. Urban developers are working alongside health professionals to create affordable care for city residents.

May 18, 2022 - Devin Partida

Multi-Family Development

Density and Driving: A Second Look

A common argument against more compact housing is that increased population density will only reduce vehicle miles traveled at moderate levels of density, as opposed to very low-density and very high-density areas. But this might not be so.

May 22, 2022 - Michael Lewyn

A row of white pickup trucks at a car dealership.

Want to Drive a Big Pickup Truck in D.C.? It’s About to Get (Even More) Expensive

D.C. is considering a $500 vehicle license fee for private vehicles over 6,000 pounds.

47 minutes ago - Bloomberg

Arlington County, Virginia

Zoning Reform Gains Momentum in Northern Virginia

Arlington County and Alexandria are moving forward with actions that could potentially launch a new era of planning and development in their respective communities.

1 hour ago - Greater Greater Washington

Multi-Family Housing

Zoning Reform Works, but Is No Magic Bullet

Improving housing affordability and boosting housing production requires more than just eliminating single-family zoning.

May 26 - Bloomberg CityLab

HUD’s 2022 Innovative Housing Showcase

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Expanding HUD’s Eviction Protection Grant Program

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on The Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Hand Drawing Master Plans

This course aims to provide an introduction into Urban Design Sketching focused on how to hand draw master plans using a mix of colored markers.