‘Pokémon Go’ caught distracting drivers

The methodology is a bit odd, but the macro message is clear: “Pokémon Go” is a major contributor to driver distraction.

Pokemon on smartphoneResearchers led by a San Diego State professor mined social media content and news reports for evidence of “Pokémon Go”-related problems. They found over a 10-day period “more than 110,000 discrete instances” of drivers being distracted by the augmented reality game.

Safety warnings have been issued in numerous states about hazards presented by the smartphone game, in which players hunt “wild Pokémon” characters in the real world.

The characters only appear on the smartphone’s screen, where they can be “captured.” Players usually are directed to high-traffic areas, such as parks, lakes, memorials, churches and tourist attractions. The game calls these locations gyms and Pokéstops.

The researchers generated a random sample of 4,000 tweets containing the words “Pokémon” and variations on “driving” for the period July 10 through 19, which was shortly after the game went live.

A third of these tweets indicated a driver, passenger or pedestrian was distracted by the game. 18 percent indicated a driver was playing while behind the wheel (“omg I’m catching Pokémon and driving”).

11 percent indicated a passenger was playing (“just made sis drive me around to find Pokémon”). Researchers said passengers using mobile devices “are typically not considered a driving risk,” but “given (the) augmented reality features, gaming passengers may implore drivers to take risks to aid their play.”

4 percent indicated a pedestrian was distracted (“almost got hit by a car playing Pokémon Go”).

The team also looked at online news reports for the period, including the widely reported instance of a player in New York who crashed into a tree and totaled his vehicle. He was lucky to survive the crash, officials said at the time.

The researchers urged: “It is in the public interest to address augmented reality games before social norms develop that encourage unsafe practices.”

“Mobile phone calls or text messaging spontaneously occur and can be ignored while driving, but in the case of ‘Pokémon Go,’ drivers may be getting into their car with the explicit purpose to play,” said study coauthor Jon-Patrick Allem of the University of Southern California.

The “Pokémon Go” application already cuts off some functions over 10 mph. A spokesman for gamemaker Niantic told ABC News: ” ‘Pokémon Go’ is not meant to be played while driving. We warn users in the app not to play the game while driving, and, when players are traveling too fast to be on foot, we require that users confirm that they are not driving, in order to proceed.”

The researchers want the gamemaker to go further. Among the team’s recommendations:

  • Making the game inaccessible for a period after any driving speed has been achieved may be necessary.
  • Augmented reality games might be disabled near roadways or parking lots.
  • Games might also include clear warnings about driving and pedestrian safety.

The Pokémon Go study is being published by the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. The lead researcher is professor John Ayers of the Graduate School of Public Health, San Diego State University.

> Read more distracted driving research.

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