Drivers using smartphones have been the bane of many good trips, and one study by Purdue researchers zeroed in on drivers playing Pokémon Go behind the wheel, specifically in the timeframe following the game’s launch.
The study, published in the Journal of Risk and Insurance, concluded that these drivers cost millions of dollars in property damage and healthcare expenses, all in a matter of weeks after the release of the game in 2016, and oh god, that feels like a century ago.
Researchers looked at police accident reports for Tippecanoe County, Indiana, and cited statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that showed a reversal in a downward trend of auto accidents. The statistics seemed to correspond to widespread use of smartphone apps. According to the study:
In 1988, fatality crashes totaled 42,130. In 2011, that number reached a low of 29,867. By 2015, the total had increased to 32,166 (NHTSA, various years.) That reversal has been widely reported and commented upon. Less well reported is that total vehicular crashes followed a similar course with 6.887 million reported in 1988 falling to a low of 5.338 million in 2011, and reversing course to reach 6.296 million in 2015.
Even though the citation accounts for a broader scope than that of drivers playing Pokémon Go, it vindicates all of us who shake our fists at the sky and curse smartphone users on the road. The researchers looked at broad timelines to understand driving environments preceding the game’s release and after it, too:
We examine nearly 12,000 police accident reports for Tippecanoe County, Indiana, for the period of March 1, 2015, through November 30, 2016. We find a disproportionate increase in crashes near PokéStops from before to after July 6, 2016. In the aggregate, these crashes are associated with increases in the dollar amount of vehicular damage, the number of personal injuries, and the number of fatalities.
The study looked into accidents at or near locations where players coalesced for the sake of advancing in-game. These so-called PokéStops became nodes where collisions increased after the roll-out, and the low estimate claimed these cost $5.2 million county-wide. The study extrapolated the data and claimed the cost was $2 billion nationwide. Again, those are the low estimates in just weeks. In other words, it was definitely not worth that shiny Ho-Oh.
Of course, since the release of Pokémon Go, Niantic — the maker of the game — has placed speed limits to stop drivers from playing, but these safeguards have not stopped the practice completely. There are even peripheral devices that are meant to enable players to participate without looking at a phone, but they don’t cut the distractions entirely. And warnings from the maker can be ignored.
I’ll admit that I have no affinity for Niantic’s interpretation of the seminal franchise. For me, the apotheosis of Pokémon is playing Pokémon Yellow on a Game Boy Color during long drives, and only as a passenger.
I suppose today’s equivalent to that anachronistic experience is playing Pokémon Sword and/or Shield on a Nintendo Switch. But no driver would ever consider playing on a console while operating a car. It’s just unthinkable. Why would a smartphone be any different?
I have yet to witness a fellow motorist catching Squirtles on a phone, and after reading the report, I hope I don’t encounter these drivers. The most egregious thing I’ve witnessed was southbound on U.S. Route 281 coming home from San Antonio, Texas.
I noticed a driver drifting a little in his lane while piloting a massive Ford F-250 pickup. He must have been going 80 miles an hour, holding a phone up in one hand with his other on the wheel. He was FaceTiming.
But lawmakers are doing something about these issues. One recent example is in Virginia, where the General Assembly in Roanoke County outlawed any driver’s handling of smartphones. Drivers will be subject to fines if caught with a smartphone in their hands. The law went into effect on New Year’s Day. Honestly, this makes the most sense. There is similar legislation in other states, but it’s not a nationwide mandate yet.
And it’s a sensible approach to cutting smartphone distractions for drivers. You can get in your car, set your nav app, set music to shuffle — or play a long album on which you don’t need to skip tracks — then get on the road. There’s no need to fiddle with your phone or catch any Pokémon until you arrive at your destination.