September 16, 2016
4 min read

Pokémon GO catches distracted drivers, pedestrians

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Players of augmented reality game Pokémon GO are frequently distracted while walking and driving, according to research published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The popular game presents another opportunity for physicians to address distracted driving, according to an expert.

John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, from San Diego State University, and colleagues noted that many players walk while playing the game, which encourages physical activity. However, players who choose to drive do not experience any health benefit and may put themselves and others in danger.

“Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- to 24-year-olds, whom the game targets,” Ayers and colleagues wrote. “Moreover, according to the American Automobile Association, 59% of all crashes among young drivers involve distractions within 6 seconds of the accident.”

Researchers analyzed Twitter posts (n = 345,433) that contained words related to Pokémon GO and driving for 10 days in July 2016. From these, they generated a sample of tweets (n = 4,000) and reviewed them to determine whether a driver, a passenger or a pedestrian who interacted with traffic was playing the game. Researchers also analyzed reports from Google News related to Pokémon and driving or that indicated a crash.

Results showed that 33% (95% CI, 31-34) of tweets suggested that a driver, passenger or pedestrian was distracted by Pokémon GO. These tweets indicated that there were 113,993 (95% CI, 107,084 to 117,447) incidences reported on Twitter during that 10-day period.

Ayer and colleagues reported that 18% of tweets (95% CI, 17-19) indicated an individual was playing Pokémon GO and driving, 11% (95%CI, 10-11) indicated an individual was riding in a car while playing and 4% (95% CI, 3-4) indicated an individual was playing while walking.

During the study period, the researchers also identified 14 crashes that were associated with Pokémon GO in news reports.

“Pokémon GO is a new distraction for drivers and pedestrians, and safety messages are scarce,” Ayers and colleagues wrote. “Delayed reaction to mobile phone distractions has hampered public safety; however, by relying on public and real-time data (as give herein) public health can stay ahead of emerging problems.”

“Our findings can help develop strategies for game developers, legislators, and the public to limit the potential dangers of Pokémon GO and other augmented reality games,” the researchers concluded. “For instance, passengers using mobile devices are typically not considered a driving risk, but given its augmented reality features, gaming passengers may implore drivers to take risks to aid their play.”

Ayers and colleagues recommended that the game include features that disable gameplay for a specific period of time after driving or disable gameplay near roadways as well as safety warnings in the future to protect both drivers and pedestrians.

Beverly Shirk, pediatric trauma coordinator at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, told Healio Internal Medicine that Pokémon GO is one distraction that drivers face, but there are many others.

“Anything that makes you take your eyes off the road or makes you feel differently, like teenage emotions, is a distraction,” she said.

This can include other kids in the car and other electronics such as GPS.

She recommended that parents, pediatricians and physicians should begin conversations on safe driving with adolescents before they start driving.

“Have that conversation as early as possible, when they’re starting to drive, so you can continue it through their lifetime,” Shirk said.

“It’s important for adolescents to put their phone away while driving so they won’t even be tempted by it,” she said. “Put it in the glove box, the back seat, or even the trunk. You can also set phones to a driving mode, without a special app.”

Shirk likened these habits to putting on a seat belt every time you drive.

“Kids should start these habits when they start driving,” she said. “It’s one of those things like putting on a seat belt — if you get comfortable with the habit, you’ll do it every time.”

Shirk, who helps run a teen driver education program in addition to trauma care coordination, noted that there are plenty of resources online for both parents and physicians, including parenting contracts, information on distracted driving, and how to have conversations with new drivers.

“In Pennsylvania, the Teen Safe Driving Coalition developed a handout with the Pennsylvania Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics,” she said. “It includes a packet of information that they were distributing to pediatricians to give to adolescents before they got their driver’s permit. Because adolescents have to get a physical exam before being cleared to drive, there’s a window of opportunity to have that conversation.”

Shirk urged primary care providers to start asking about distracted driving and safe driving behaviors if they don’t already.

“Most ask if you wear your seat belt, but they need to include distracted driving and speeding,” she said. “It can be difficult to keep up on the latest recommendations, but having a one-page handout from the American Academy of Pediatrics or a safe driving group should help.”

Shirk also noted that many adolescent patients are transitioning from pediatric care to primary care, which represents another opportunity for health care providers to screen for safe driving habits.

“Physicians ask about weight, smoking and other behaviors,” Shirk said. “A transitions period between health care groups is a good time for there to be a conversation or assessment about distracted driving as well.” – by Chelsea Frajerman Pardes

Disclosure: Shirk reports no relevant financial disclosures. Ayers, as well as two other authors, share an equity stake in Good Analytics, a social media monitoring company that uses some of the methods embodied in this work to support public health practice. Please see the full study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.