It has been a long time since cell phones were solely, or even primarily, used for placing phone calls. Today's smartphones serve numerous purposes in the everyday lives of an increasing share of the population. According to a State Farm survey, in 2014 about 80 percent of drivers had a smartphone, up from about 50 percent in 2011. And we use those smartphones not just for talking and texting, but for GPS navigation, shopping, email, internet browsing, social media, and games. Of all these uses, it would not be unreasonable to believe games to be the least likely source of distraction for a driver. Reasonable, but wrong – at least since the release of Pokemon Go.
The Pokemon video game franchise has been going strong for twenty years. What started as a handheld video game and trading card phenomenon has migrated to a number of different platforms, including America's cell phones. But unlike most video games that keep players glued to television and computer screens for hours on end, Pokemon Go was designed to encourage people to get outside and move around. By using the phone's camera, the game inserts its iconic collectible creatures into the player's real-world environment, prompting players to explore their communities in their quest to “catch 'em all.”
Unfortunately, there are always people who can take a good idea and find a way to turn it foolish and dangerous. In the case of Pokemon Go, we are beginning to see players take a game designed for pedestrians and play it while behind the wheel. Both law enforcement agencies and the general public are increasingly aware of the dangers of texting while driving, but how much more hazardous is a driver determined to catch that elusive Eevee while going 65 miles an hour? On average, a driver writing a text message looks away from the road for about five seconds; at highway speeds, that's roughly the length of a football field. Pokemon Go has the potential to snare a driver's attention for much longer, while they try to capture animated monsters.
To give the designers of the game some credit, they did anticipate the possibility that some people might view their cars as Pokemon-hunting tools, and they programmed a safety feature to discourage this practice. If the phone's GPS senses that the device is moving at automobile speeds, it displays a warning that you are going too fast to use the app. However, perhaps envisioning children tucked in the back seat of the family sedan on a road trip to see their grandparents, or commuters riding the bus or subway to work, the programmers provide a way to get around the speed lock-out. Simply by tapping the button declaring, “I'm a passenger!” the player can proceed with their game unhindered. Whatever benefit this may have for subway commuters and bored preteens on the way to grandma's, this feature also allows irresponsible motorists to bypass the only safety measure in place to prevent them from playing behind the wheel.
Lest you believe that a game in which players collect brightly-colored monsters to fight against other players' teams of creatures wouldn't hold much appeal for anyone old enough to drive, consider the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics. According to their research, 58 percent of Pokemon Go users fall between the ages of 18 and 24, with another 38 percent aged 25 to 30. In some ways this is unsurprising; young adults are more likely to be technologically savvy and use their smartphones and other devices more frequently and for more recreational purposes. In addition, the Pokemon franchise celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, so many of these younger adults grew up with Pikachu and friends, and may be drawn to the game out of nostalgia. The game is so wildly popular that at least one major cellular provider has exempted Pokemon Go from normal data plan charges.
The chilling part of the data released by the NHTSA is that the same age groups that boast the greatest numbers of Pokemon Go players are also the age groups most likely to die in automotive crashes involving distracted driving. As a result, the NHTSA has issued a public message warning drivers against playing the game while driving. Sadly this is not a hypothetical hazard – there have already been reports of auto accidents caused by distracted drivers playing Pokemon Go instead of watching the road. Last month a Baltimore driver collided with a parked police car; after the officer caught up with the driver, the man admitted that he had been playing the game. Even pedestrian players are not entirely safe from the risks of distraction – there have been reports of phone thefts and pedestrian accidents when players were too absorbed in the game to remain aware of their surroundings. Be careful out there.
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