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Pedestrians look at their phones as they use the scramble crossing at Bay and Bloor Streets in Toronto on Feb. 18, 2015.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

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We’ve all seen some kind of sidewalk rage, pushiness, arrogance, cellphone-wielding obliviousness – as bad as Richard Ashcroft, the singer of the Verve, walking with determined carelessness past pedestrians to the tune Bitter Sweet Symphony.

In that popular late-1990s music video, he brushes shoulders, bumps arms. Angry retorts ensue, but he doesn’t acknowledge anyone. He’s in his own world. An embattled, laddish self-autonomy is at play. He even walks over the hood of a woman’s car (even though, of course, the whole thing was staged).

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Still, the clip proclaimed wanton sidewalk obliviousness as being a thing, at least worthy of a music video concept. For we’ve all been there, witnessed some form of pedestrian nonsense. Cue two decades of punditry about the end of civility – and the very real, very serious danger when that attitude intersects with cars. One report provided by the Toronto Police Service tallied 40 pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2018, up from 37 in 2017, with 1702 pedestrian-involved collisions in 2018, down from 1845 in 2017.

And now there’s the added distraction of cellphones.

Civil engineers at the University of British Columbia found that what’s interesting is how to measure and analyze these sidewalk dangers better and even prevent them. The research, of course, echoes recent measures to curb distracted drivers and their multitasking flirtation with calamity.

In the study, the engineers used video footage taken of a big, busy intersection in Kamloops, B.C., with two traffic lanes in every direction and heavy pedestrian use. (The video footage was also used for another safety study and so was readily available, and it’s an intersection close to a university campus, with many young, distracted pedestrians, hence the choice of that particular location.)

The problem with safety studies is that they typically record and analyze collisions, which are rare. The UBC engineers instead used software to detect and analyze near collisions and evasive actions, which are far more plentiful.

What they discovered were clear characteristics of distracted walking and a different response to close calls.

A pedestrian’s gait, walking speed and the frequency and length of steps can reveal whether they are distracted. But “what was more important was their stability,” said Tarek Sayed, an engineering professor and Canada research chair in transportation safety and advanced mobility at UBC, who co-wrote the report.

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Distracted walkers simply walk differently. They are slower. Texters tend to reduce their step length, the study found, while cellphone callers tend to reduce their step frequency. All of this varies depending on how engrossed they are in their calls, running the risk of annoying fellow pedestrians and confusing drivers. “If we look at the distance walked and analyze their gait parameters, we can with about 80-per-cent accuracy determine who’s distracted and who’s not, which means that their walking behaviour is quite different,” Sayed said.

With data on near misses, rather than just collisions, “we can quickly identify safety issues and come up with countermeasures much faster, in a matter of hours, than waiting three, four or five years to collect collision data,” Sayed said.

The next step is determining what preventative measures to install. So, let’s return to the Ashcroft example. The point of the music video is to depict how out of step the singer is with other foot traffic. He’s clearly in the wrong, bumping and pushing everybody. (But life is rough, man!) Yet the UBC engineers with their software are less interested in placing blame and are more in prevention.

Given the near impossibility of clamping down on aggressive or distracted walkers in any meaningful way (even if the city of Honolulu has tried to legislate distracted cellphone use while crossing intersections), blameless prevention might make more sense and is more cost-effective, Sayed said.

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Just as roads have rumble strips to alert distracted drivers veering too close to the shoulder, sidewalks can be built with ways to warn pedestrians of congested areas or dangerous intersections, whether with different sidewalk textures or warnings painted on the pathway, for instance. Or some sidewalks could have a step running lengthwise, encouraging faster walkers to take the outside pedestrian lane. Or trees in planters, serving as pleasant obstacles, could help keep pedestrians alert.

For traffic, the turn signals on traffic lights can be delayed to give more leeway to slower, distracted pedestrians crossing the road, Sayed suggested. Another measure is the now commonplace scramble crossing, where all traffic is brought to a stop, letting pedestrians cross in all directions. The trick is to find what works best in what locales.

“We are changing the way we look at safety. Before, we used to look at who’s at fault,” Sayed said. The aim should not be to blame the pedestrian and to implement costly enforcement, he argued. “We’re interested in the most cost-effective solution to the problem.”

Yet, only so much can be done to make sidewalks safer and more civil. There’s the argument that punitive measures can send the wrong message and discourage sidewalk use. Any talk of distracted-walking legislation in Vancouver, for instance, seems to have been shot down, because it would be counter to the city’s environmental policies.

“It has come up in city councils, but it tends to die on the floor. The reason for that is pretty simple. It’s very hard to legislate common sense,” said Lewis Smith, spokesman and manager of national projects at the Canada Safety Council. And so, if someone is going to walk around distracted and entitled, maybe we should simply let them have their rock-star moment.

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