“Pokémon Go” Car Crashes Are Just A Small Part Of A Larger Crisis

A study claims that Pokémon Go caused an estimated 145,000 car crashes in the U.S. But the real problem is much bigger.

“Pokémon Go” Car Crashes Are Just A Small Part Of A Larger Crisis
[Source Images: DjelicS/iStock (photo), Niantic, Inc./Pokémon/Nintendo (Screenshot)]

In a 49-page paper titled Death by Pokémon GO, Purdue University Professor of Finance Mara Faccio and Professor of Management John J. McConnell estimate that the Augmented Reality game Pokémon Go could have caused more than 145,000 car crashes, 29,000 injuries, and 250 deaths in the first five months after its July 6, 2016 release in the United States.


The authors caution that these national numbers are an extrapolation of their analysis of 12,000 detailed car accident reports over the same period at Tippecanoe County, Indiana. The research paper still needs to be peer-reviewed after being uploaded to SSRN, but the county’s data is conclusive: The crash frequency was 26.5% higher at intersections within 100 meters of a Pokéstop compared to other road intersections. The data also shows a correlation between the relative incident increase at the Pokéstops nearby intersections and the game’s daily active user data. They calculated that, in addition to the two people who died playing Pokémon Go while driving at Tippecanoe County, the cost of the five-month period’s crashes and injuries was at least $5.2 million.

This month, knowing about the increasing role of their location-based AR game in car accidents, developer Niantic banned interacting with Pokéstops at driving speeds, no matter if you’re the driver or a passenger. The feature–arguably implemented to avoid any kind of liability lawsuit in case of accident–followed another update last August. In that update, if the game detected that the player was in a car, the game asked users to stop playing unless they could confirm they were passengers and not drivers. In a statement to Forbes, the company acknowledged the change but didn’t disclose the reasons.

TV stations and newspapers are hysterical, screaming at people not to drive and play this road carnage-inducing game. But the question here, perhaps, is why so many people are focusing on an AR game like Pokémon Go rather than the overall role of smartphones in car accidents. Should we demand more safety measures from game companies than we demand from other app developers or the phone manufacturers themselves?

[Photo: stevanovicigor/iStock]
Everywhere I go, I see drivers looking at text messages, typing, or scrolling through their Facebook feeds. According to the National Safety Council, phone usage in cars “leads to 1.6 million crashes each year.” The latest statistics available reportedly show that 1 out of every 4 car accidents in the United States is caused by distraction due to texting and driving (ironically, 94% of drivers support a ban on texting while driving and 74% support a general ban of smartphone usage while driving.)

With new AR games coming–including a Pokémon Go-style game set in the universe of Harry Potter–we may start seeing more reports of deadly accidents involving morons looking for Pikachu or Voldemort (whether driving or walking, which can be deadly too ). But let’s not forget that these games, compared to the universal usage of texting or Facebook, are a comparatively small segment of the distracted driver population. Not to talk about the fact that car fatalities due to distractions dropped 2.2% in 2016, with drinking, unused seatbelts, and speeding still being the main causes of death in American roads. All those three causes increased in 2016.

Perhaps, rather than focusing on engineering AR apps, texting, or smartphones in general to take care of reckless people, we should focus on educating people not to be reckless. Or maybe we need an engineered solution: Since people don’t seem to respond to anti-drunk driving campaigns, we should assume that they won’t listen to anti-distracted driving campaigns either. In any case, AR games are just part of a much bigger problem that may not have any real, definitive solution except perhaps a full migration to self-driving transportation systems.

About the author

Jesus Diaz founded the new Sploid for Gawker Media after seven years working at Gizmodo, where he helmed the lost-in-a-bar iPhone 4 story. He's a creative director, screenwriter, and producer at The Magic Sauce and a contributing writer at Fast Company.