A surge in road accidents in Indiana has been blamed on Pokémon Go, but other apps are also likely to be contributing to a rise in crashes
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Using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous. Trying to catch Pokémon at the wheel could be even worse. According to a new analysis, the mobile game Pokémon Go may have contributed to nearly 150,000 traffic accidents, 256 deaths and economic costs of $2 billion to $7.3 billion in the first 148 days after its introduction to the US.
These figures come from extrapolating the effects of Pokémon Go on Tippecanoe county in Indiana to the whole of the US, so should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, even in this locale, there was a substantial increase in traffic accidents following the game’s launch. The researchers say they were able to attribute 134 crashes, two of them fatal, across the county to Pokémon Go between July and November 2016, out of a total of 286.
“We used the most conservative assumptions that were supported by the data. We are quite confident of the extrapolation and, if anything, we are understating the effect,” says Mara Faccio at Purdue University, who carried out the study with colleague John McConnell, also at Purdue.
Pokémon Go is an augmented reality app that adjusts a person’s surroundings through the lens of their smartphone camera. A player at the right location can see cartoony creatures called Pokémon, as well as finding PokéStops where they can restock supplies or Gyms where their Pokémon can battle those of other players.
Because battles at Gyms take so long, it is essentially impossible to be driving and also battling. However, PokéStops can be used quickly and so someone might be able to top up their supplies while still at the wheel. Faccio and McConnell’s analysis found that traffic accidents in Tippecanoe county were clustered around PokéStops but not Gyms, suggesting aspects of the game were leading to dangerous driving.
This clustering allowed the pair to make the association to Pokémon Go, but it is likely that other apps are just as bad. Up until 2011, the number of accidents in the US had experienced a 25-year decline. This has since reversed and some have suggested that mobile phones are to blame, but they were widespread well before the upturn. Could apps be the problem?
In 2008, Apple’s App Store had 800 apps with 10 million downloads. By 2011, this had shot up to 500,000 apps and 18 billion downloads, and has continued growing at a rapid pace. Chatting on a mobile phone while driving is distracting enough, but people using apps may have just been enough to reverse the trend.
Though the figures seem shocking, the study’s methods seem reliable. “The statistical analyses they performed appear to be sound, correctly applied and actually statistically significant,” says Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan.
However, he is sceptical about how applicable the findings are for a wider geography or population. “I believe these results for Tippecanoe county, Indiana, are accurate and probably reliable. But I am not so sure that this county is very representative of the rest of the country,” he says. For example, the county is mostly rural with a major urban area and a major university that has many young, inexperienced drivers. “To claim to be able to estimate larger financial effects for the country is not necessarily supported by the data they analysed,” says Schoettle.
Reference: SSRN, ssrn.com/abstract=3073723
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