You remember Pokémon Go, right? That mobile game that swept the world this summer, taking over your life for a few weeks before you and a lot of other people got bored with the lack of actual game-play and set it aside? Given how addictive the game is at first — people couldn’t even put it away at Auschwitz — it probably shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of people seem to be playing it while they drive.
That’s the takeaway of a research letter just published in JAMA Internal Medicine. A team led by John Ayers, a researcher at San Diego State University who likes to extract public-health data and trends from social media, did a search for tweets containing “Pokémon” (both with and without the accent mark, Ayers confirmed in an email) and some version of the word “driving” between July 10 and 19. Out popped 345,433 such tweets, and the team then grabbed a random sample of 4,000 of them and began analyzing them to figure out which sorts of dangerous behaviors Twitter users were copping to — specifically, whether the tweets were from drivers, passenger, or pedestrians.
As tends to be the case online, people were pretty open about their stupid behaviors: “A normal drive home = 5 min,” tweeted one user. “Stopping every block to catch Pokémon GO = 20 mins.” Others outed their relatives: “My mom just legit stopped the car in the middle of the road to catch a Pokémon…” Some were surprised at their own foolishness: “omg I’m catching Pokémon and driving.” omg, indeed.
Extrapolating from those 4,000 tweets, the researchers predicted that in just the ten-day period they looked, there were “more than 110,000 discrete instances where drivers or pedestrians were distracted by Pokémon GO.” The researchers don’t break that down by drivers and passengers, but Ayers explained to Select All, “The exact number was about 113K in in total. Drivers were the large majority. About 62K indicated the driver herself was playing, 38K the driver was distracted by a playing passenger, and 13K a pedestrian was distracted by.” And those are just the people who openly tweeted about their dangerous behavior.
One of the reasons this is particularly bad is that, as the authors write, car crashes “are the leading cause of death among 16- to 24-year-olds, whom the game targets,” and “59% of all crashes among young drivers involve distractions within 6 seconds of the accident.” But there’s a seemingly easy fix: Already, Pokémon Go’s game-play is “restricted at speeds greater than 10 miles an hour.” Just tweak that a bit, argue the researchers: “Making the game inaccessible for a period after any driving speed has been achieved may be necessary given our observations that players are driving or riding in cars.” In light of all those cringeworthy tweets, that seems like a no-brainer.