Pedestrian Safety: Distracted Walking, Train Hazards

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Don’t let distracted walking send you to the hospital.

Cell phone, intersections — and especially train tracks — create a deadly mixture of situational awareness loss and fast-moving hazards. Pedestrians are increasingly at risk of injury from using mobile devices or otherwise not paying attention to surrounding traffic.

Cell phones and distracted walking

Pedestrian walking on train tracks while a large hand holds a cell phone.
Don’t be this guy! Pay attention to where you walk and don’t walk on train tracks. Image credit: FunkyFocus.

Have you ever bumped into a telephone pole or narrowly missed a speeding car while chatting on your cell phone? You’re not alone.

Walking while distracted by a mobile device is a growing traffic safety problem. Emergency rooms treated over 1,500 people injured while walking and using cell phones in 2010, according a study by Ohio State University. Moreover, such injuries have actually increased by 35 percent since 2010, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

Distracted walking injuries are under-reported in traffic accident statistics, according to Kristie Gladhill, Region 1 Traffic Safety Coordinator at the Oregon Department of Transportation. This is because “there are injuries a distracted person walking could have that are not related to a motor vehicle,” such as walking into a glass wall or falling on a slippery surface, she says.

“It has to do with the psychology of cell phone use and the addictive nature of cell phones,” says Kit Keller, policy director at the association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals. “We become so absorbed in what we’re doing and lose track of our surroundings.”

Stop before you text

If you need to use your mobile device or any reason, step out of the flow of pedestrian traffic and stay in place until you’re done.

Don’t wear headphones that shut out surrounding noise. Car horns, sirens and shouting exist for a reason. Don’t be that reason. No matter how annoying, you’ll want to hear the sounds of approaching danger over the vocals of your favorite pop star.

Better yet, turn off your devices entirely. “When you’re walking, your cell phone needs to be in your pocket or purse,” says Keller. “It just isn’t the safe choice to use your cell phone when you’re moving.”

Don’t walk and talk

You can be distracted even without using a mobile device. All you need is a friend walking beside you and a good conversation to take your mind off that pesky commuter train flying down the track.

“Walking is typically a social activity,” says Keller. However, “it’s like skiing downhill while talking to the person on your left but not paying attention to the danger posed by the tree on the right.”

If you’re in a potentially dangerous place, like an intersection or crowded sidewalk, save the conversations for later. If necessary, stop at a safe location to talk to your walking companion or use your phone.

Cross streets legally

Jaywalking laws are meant to keep pedestrians alive, so obey them. Cross at intersections. Pay attention to lights, signs, crosswalks and other pedestrians. Pay special attention to approaching vehicles and bikes.

“If it comes to a vehicle versus a pedestrian, the vehicle’s greater momentum is going to cause far greater harm to the pedestrian,” says Gladhill.

Look where you’re going

Don’t stare down at the phone while stepping off the curb. Look up and make eye contact with nearby drivers. Keep an eye out for vehicles, pedestrians, utility poles, warning signs and anything else that you might otherwise wander into.

“It’s always good to be looking ahead, to both sides, and at the surface you are walking on to be aware of your surroundings when you are in motion,” says Gladhill.

Talk to your kid

Young people are especially vulnerable need to understand the importance of safe walking habits. Half of all teens admit to using mobile devices while crossing the street, according to a survey by Safe Kids Worldwide.

“Even though we all know about the dangers of texting when walking or driving, it is still a common practice, especially for teens,” president and Safe Kids CEO Kate Carr said in a public statement. “This is a trend we simply must stop.”

Trains vs pedestrians

Modern trains aren’t the slow, noisy machines of your grandparent’s time. These days, you might not see them coming until it’s too late. Strolling along a ribbon of rail stretching to the horizon may sound like a romantic way to spend a lazy afternoon. But it’s also deadly and illegal.

Train tracks and the right-of-way surrounding them are private property owned by the railroad. Trespassing is the main cause of railroad-related deaths, according to Joyce Rose, president of Operation Lifesaver, Inc., a nonprofit rail safety education organization. “It’s a stubborn safety issue. The number of fatal trespassing accidents has risen every year since 2011,” she says.

From 2012 thru 2017, a total 2,355 people were struck by trains while trespassing on railroad property, excluding confirmed suicides, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. A 2013 study by the same agency concluded that 458 trespassing pedestrians die each year, often while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

“There are people who love railroads and trains and they’re a part of the American mystique,” says Rose. “Some people think that tracks are safer than walking alongside of a highway, which just isn’t true.”

Trains are heavy

An individual locomotive weighs hundreds of tons. They are much harder to brake than a car or truck, and it can take over a mile to bring one to a halt. So, if the engineer sees you near the tracks, they probably won’t have enough time to prevent an impact.

“People just don’t realize how long the stopping distance is for trains.” says Rose.

Even light-rail

A commuter train may not be as large as a freight train, but when cruising at 55 mph, it still needs approximately 600 feet — or two football fields — to come to a complete stop.

“Every kind of railroad service, whether it’s freight rail or passenger rail or transit, has the same risk for the driving and walking public,” says Rose. “People get distracted. You have to cross the tracks to get to the parking lot, calling your husband to ask about dinner, and not realize that there’s a train coming.”

Trains are wide

Walking next to the rails is as dangerous as walking on them. Rail cars extend at least three feet beyond either side of the tracks, even more if loose straps are flapping in the wind.

“For the sake of safety, you’ll want to make sure that you’re at least fifteen feet away from the rail,” says Rose. “Technically, people shouldn’t trespass anywhere on a railroad right-of-way and that could extend for fifty feet on either side of the tracks.”

But trestles are narrow

You may be tempted to go fishing or bungee-jumping off these picturesque railway bridges. But trestles are not like bridges built for cars and trucks. There’s not enough room for both you and the train. If you’re caught on one when you hear that mournful whistle blow, there’s nowhere to hide.

In one notable accident caught on video, a movie crew filming the Gregg Allman biopic “Midnight Rider” climbed onto a trestle without obtaining the proper permits. When a train appeared suddenly they were unable to run away in time, so an assistant camera operator died and several others sustained injuries.

“The NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] investigated and came up with some outreach recommendations for the film industry,” says Rose.

Trains are quiet and can hide

You would think that something as heavy as a warship would be easy to notice. But don’t count on hearing them roaring toward you from a distance.

Modern trains are relatively quiet and can sneak up on you anytime. Light-rail trains are even quieter. For instance, traditional railroad tracks — short lengths of rail held together with large spikes — have largely been replaced with modern “continuous welded rail.” Now, several miles-worth of rails are welded together to create a single, unbroken stretch of track that makes less noise.

“You don’t have the clickity-clack, so you have to expect a train in any moment in any direction,” says Rose.

They’re also not so easy to see, if another train is blocking your view. If you’re waiting for a train to pass — even at a legal, marked intersection — don’t immediately cross as soon as it’s gone. A second one may be racing up from the opposite direction.

Want to learn more? Upon request, Operation Lifesaver can have trained volunteers make a railroad safety presentation to your group, according to Rose.

David Arv Bragi, profile picture

David Arv Bragi is a multidisciplinary journalist with experience in health, safety, personal finance, technology, arts and cultural topics. He is also a former team leader and volunteer in community/tower emergency response teams. He currently lives just outside of Bellingham, Washington.