The Antiplanner has previously noted the frightening increase in highway fatalities in the last few years and suggested it might be related to growing traffic congestion. An alternative view is presented in a new paper by researchers at Purdue University titled “Death by Pokémon Go.” The paper found that the release of the Pokémon Go game led to a “disproportionate increase in vehicular crashes and . . . fatalities in the vicinity of locations, called Poke?Stops, where users can play the game while driving.”
After mysteriously collapsing by 25 percent between 2005 and 2010–the biggest five-year decline in 60 years–the number of fatalities remained roughly constant at around 32,500 for five years. But between 2014 and 2016, they grew by 15 percent, or nearly 4,800 deaths. While one computer game isn’t responsible for all 4,800 deaths, the study suggests that the growth of cell phone apps–from 800 iPhone apps in 2008 to more than 2 million today–and related distracted driving could be responsible for much of the increase.
Comparing 2016 fatalities with those from 2005 shows a 14 percent decline overall. However, the decline for occupants of motor vehicles is much larger, while non-occupant fatalities actually increased.
Specifically, the decline in fatalities for car occupants was 28 percent; for light-truck occupants was 21 percent; and for heavy-truck occupants was 10 percent. But pedestrian fatalities grew by 22 percent; motorcycles by 16 percent; and bicycles by 7 percent. Since 2014, occupant fatalities have grown by 12 percent, but non-occupants (including motorcycles) have grown by 18 percent. The fatality rate per billion passenger miles grew by 7 percent for occupants but 13 percent for non-occupants.
Thanks to features such as vehicle-stability control, collision avoidance, and curtain airbags, cars are getting safer. But drivers may not be driving more safely, partly because of more distractions and possibly because they are willing to be distracted because they know their cars are safer.
As a result, legislatures that are passing increasingly strict distracted-driver laws may be doing the right thing. Oregon’s previous ban on cell phone usage allowed drivers to use other apps on their phones. Starting October 1 of this year, use of any phone apps while driving is illegal. If that can be enforced, it is probably a good thing, especially if the lives it saves will be those of non-occupants.