Paper About Dangers of Pokémon GO for Drivers and Pedestrians Receives Widespread Media Attention

San Diego, Calif., Oct. 6, 2016 — A research letter co-authored by Qualcomm Institute affiliate Linda Hill, a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, has received widespread media attention from news sources around the globe.

Pokemon Go while driving
A first-person view of  Pokémon GO from behind the wheel.

The letter, titled “Pokémon GO—A New Distraction for Drivers and Pedestrians,” was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and concludes that the popular augmented reality game presents a real distraction for drivers and pedestrians. The researchers analyzed Google search results as well as 4,000 Twitter posts made between July 10 and 19 from the approximately 345,000 tweets that contained the words “Pokémon” and driving. They then determined that about 113,000 people in the United States reported playing the game while in a car or while walking near traffic.

The paper was mentioned in news stories reported by the BBC, CNN, NBC, National Public Radio, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, Medical News Today and more.

“Social media is a fabulous way of assessing where people are with the public health issue,” said Hill, who co-wrote the letter with her colleague John W. Ayers of San Diego State University. “It’s unlike doing a survey where you have to anticipate what question to ask and hope people tell you the truth. In scraping social media you actually see with your own eyes what people are saying about a topic. When the Pokémon craze came out in July, we knew that if we were going to have a public health voice we’d have to jump on it fast.” 

Hill said that as a public health researcher, she recognizes the benefits of Pokémon GO, which, she acknowledges, gets people outside and engaging in physical activity. She and Ayers therefore suggest in their letter that game developers, legislators, and the public develop strategies to limit the potential dangers of Pokémon GO and other augmented reality games. “For instance,” they wrote, “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.”

“Ultimately, this is about the driver’s behavior,” added Hill. “It’s all part of this attitude that driving doesn’t take all your attention. Pokémon GO is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no safe amount of talking on the phone, hands free or handheld. Driving is visual, manual and cognitive, and Pokémon GO requires that you also do all three of those tasks. 

“Even if the company is able to put in technology to keep people from using it while driving, people will find workarounds,” she continued. “We need to have a cultural shift like we did with smoking, where we changed what was acceptable. Using social media will give us better insights so we can design public health interventions that will reduce instances.