Phone distractions in a crosswalk: An observational research experience for your students

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No, your students will not be texting or talking/listening to a phone in a crosswalk! Instead, they will be observing others who are.

A recent study (Alsaleh, Sayed, & Zaki, 2018)* found that people who were on their phones – either looking at their screens or talking/listening to their phone – took longer to cross the street. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. For example, distracted pedestrians are not on the lookout for distracted motorists. When distracted pedestrians and distracted motorists meet, distracted pedestrians always lose. Since distracted pedestrians spend more time in the crosswalk, they have a greater chance of being hit by a distracted motorist.

How much time does it take?

In urban areas, lanes should be 10 feet (3 meters) wide (National Association of City Transportation Officials, n.d.). That makes a four-lane road 40 feet (12 meters) wide. In the distraction study (Alsaleh et al., 2018), non-distracted pedestrians walked at a rate of 1.66 meters/second. That means it took them about 7 seconds to cross a four-lane road. In contrast, researchers found that phone-distracted pedestrians walked at a rate of about 1.5 meters/second, taking about 8 seconds to cross a four-lane road.

The activity

The researchers used observers on the ground to determine whether and how pedestrians were using their phones and used cameras to determine walking speed. For this activity, all measures will be done by observers.

Divide students into groups no smaller than three students. One student will determine if the pedestrian is distracted by their phone or not. Since the researchers found no difference in walking speed between looking at the phone and talking/listening, let’s keep this simple and not ask students to make the distinction. One student will be the timer. Using a stopwatch app on their own phone, the student will time how long it takes the pedestrian to cross the street. The third student will be the recorder – recording whether the pedestrian was distracted and recording the time it took the pedestrian to cross the street.

Students will need to make some decisions before heading out. If you would like to compile the data across groups, then you should have this discussion as a class. If you would like to discuss how each group’s decisions affected their results afterwards, then let each group decide these on their own.

Consider these as starter questions. When students return from the activity, they may have other issues that should have been considered in advance. That is a great opportunity to talk about the importance of pilot studies and their role in helping sort out these issues before investing time in a larger study.

1. Where are they going to do their observations? Ideally, it will be a street with a lot of pedestrian traffic. The wider the street, the easier it will be see differences in the time it takes to cross.
2. If there is a group of people waiting to cross the street, how will students determine who to time? The first person to cross? The right-most person?
3. How will the students identify the person to each other to make sure that the student noting the phone behavior and the student doing the timing are looking at the same pedestrian?
4. When will the timing start? When the target pedestrian lifts a foot to step off the curb? When the foot first hits the street?
5. When will the timing stop? When the target pedestrian lifts a foot to stop onto the curb? When the last foot leaves the pavement?
6. How will the recorder record the data? How many columns will be in the data sheet? To how many decimal places will the stopwatch times be recorded?
7. How long will they collect data? Or how many pedestrians should they time? What if all of the pedestrians are on a phone?

When students return with their data, either that same class period or the next class period, have the recording student enter their data in a shared Google spreadsheet, for example. One column should be the first and last initials of each member of the group, one column is for non-distracted times, and one column is for distracted times.

Calculate means for the non-distracted and distracted pedestrians. If you’d like, conduct a t-test if you want to talk about statistical significance.

If some groups seem to have much slower or longer times than other groups, discuss the methodology they used.

Give each group an opportunity to share with the class what they would do differently if they were to conduct this observational research study again.

Conclusion

To conclude the activity, explain that if the class were to submit this study for publication, the authors would summarize the research related to this topic, explain in detail how the study was conducted, reveal the results, and finally explain what the findings mean, how they add to the body of research on this topic, and identify what could be done differently or better next time. Now is also a good time to explain the peer review process and the importance of replication.

References

Alsaleh, R., Sayed, T., & Zaki, M. H. (2018). Assessing the effect of pedestrians’ use of cell phones on their walking behavior. Transportation Research Record, Advance online publication. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1177/0361198118780708

National Association of City Transportation Officials. (n.d.). Lane width. Retrieved August 17, 2018, from https://nacto.org/publication/urban-street-design-guide/street-design-elements/lane-width/

*Note: The full article by Alsaleh et al. is available through ResearchGate.

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