Distracted Walking: Another Improvement Opportunity for Process Excellence?


Would you walk through the car plant, above, while staring down at your phone or your smartwatch? Most likely not or, if you were stupid enough to do that, you would either (a) get injured as you tripped over a rail, walked into a post, or got whacked by a robot arm that you did not notice, or (b) you’d get pulled over by the plant manager, told to put away the phone and/or tossed out of the facility.

But every day we see people looking at our phones while walking. The myth of multi-tasking is, thankfully, starting to get called out for the fiction that it is, but the practice of staring and swiping obsessively at our screens and reacting to alerts buzzing from our watches is on the ascendency.

Now, joining the outrage against distracted driving, are calls for the banning of distracted walking.

My daughter Casey was killed by a distracted driver in 2009. It was daytime and she was walking across the street in a crosswalk when she was struck by a 58 year-old man who ran a stop sign. He said he never saw her. Since that time, my wife and I have made it our mission to change driving attitudes and raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. But a new report from the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) should be a wake up call that we need to also address distracted walking.

The GHSA study suggests that we are a nation of distracted drivers and distracted walkers. It is routine to see others looking at their phones while walking in hallways, on sidewalks and while crossing busy intersections. It’s also common to see drivers talking on their cell phones, texting, eating breakfast or applying makeup while behind the wheel. So the fact that traffic fatalities jumped 8.1 percent last year and pedestrian deaths are increasing at the fastest rate recorded should be no surprise to any of us. But, as a result, there are now many more families mourning the loss of loved ones killed as pedestrians.

Of course, distracted driving and walking aren’t the sole reasons for the alarming rise in fatalities. Economic prosperity and low fuel prices mean we’re driving more miles. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) estimates that Americans drove more than 3 trillion miles last year, an increase of 3.5 percent over 2014. Miles alone, however, do not account for the 10% increase in pedestrian deaths. Some of that increase is assuredly related to distraction.

In speaking with middle school students across the country as part of our End Distracted Driving (EndDD.org) educational campaign, we teach kids how to speak up when their drivers, usually mom and dad, drive distracted. We also cover distracted walking. Recently when speaking with about 150 8th graders in Maine, I asked how many had fallen or bumped into something while walking and looking at their phones. Almost every hand went up. Thankfully, the vast majority was only embarrassed but some students did suffer injuries. They said it was scary —thinking that drivers were distracted by their phones and kids were walking along streets and through intersections also distracted by their phones.

Clearly responsibility lies with both drivers and pedestrians to stop distraction-related deaths. I know my daughter Casey wasn’t using her cell phone when she was killed. But I will never know if she tried to make eye contact with the driver or where she was looking just before she was struck. (From A Nation of Distracted Drivers and Walkers by Joel Feldman in The Huffington Post).

This excerpt, also from The Huffington Post, is by a piece by Fran Moreland Johns:

Not long ago, New York Times columnist Nick Bilton wrote a piece in which he shared a New Year’s resolution to quit texting while walking.

“The realization that I may have a problem (along with a lot of other people),” Bilton wrote, “hit me smack in the face, literally, a few weeks ago when I was strolling through Kennedy International Airport, avoiding obstacles with my peripheral vision as I clambered out a text message. Without any warning (as I couldn’t actually see), I was involved in a head-on collision with another man who was also texting while walking.”

Most walking-zombie texters do survive, as Bilton did, with only bruised egos or minimal damage, but that’s not always the case. An Ohio State University study links “distracted walking” to the dramatic increase in pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Is there life beyond a 2 ½ x 5 inch screen?

In Canada, municipalities are beginning to take action. Whether these are actions that are sensible are another matter. Here’s a story from Global News titled “Over 60 per cent of Canadians support ‘distracted walking’ legislation.”

How many times have you seen someone on their phone completely oblivious to their surroundings while walking or crossing the road?

A new poll from Insights West suggests 66 per cent of Canadians say they would support “distracted walking” legislation in their municipality that would forbid the use of hand-held cell phones by people who are in a roadway and are, for example, crossing the street.

“We were quite surprised at the high level of support for distracted walking legislation, including 51 per cent of the Millennials, the ones who text the most and have grown up with hand-held cell phones,” said Mario Canseco with Insights West.

Visual management, the lean flow concept of using our eyes to understand conditions, is a foundational element of process excellence and yet many of us are forgetting this principle when we leave work. We preach workplace safety constantly; it seems that communities must now also work on safety in public spaces.

Process excellence practitioners, here’s another opportunity to exercise your skills.


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