Pedestrian Safety & Phone

It’s crazy out there…phones, cars, and pedestrians. Heads up and more.

Crossing the street with phones is not safe. This is a 2016 campaign reported in the (Pittsburgh) Tribune-Review
Pedestrians and Phones Seeking Danger!
photo credit: Andrew Russell, Tribune-Review

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I read that this column was originally about distracted driving. Well, how about distracted pedestrians? I live in the city and when I take the car out there are scooters and bikes to avoid, but the most dangerous seem to be the pedestrians who jaywalk and never look up from their phones. These people don’t pay any attention to the road! Conner,San Francisco

Dear Connor: You are in the right, except that you are in the car and you must keep safe at all cost. Pedestrian and cyclist fatalities are increasing. A recent report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found more pedestrians and cyclists were killed last year than in any year since 1990; approximately 17 pedestrians and two cyclists were killed each day.

It’s grim. Your only choice as an urban driver is to be uber-cautious and reduce your speed. In cities, I think humans now need to drive as if they were an autonomous car. They should have super-sensors, be programmed to give way to pedestrians (right or wrong), and travel at or below the posted speed limit. Fewer right-on-red turns would help too.

Calling Situational Awareness

When pedestrians use phones they have reduced situational awareness and distracted attention. A 2008 safety study gave 30 pedestrians mobile phones to talk on and another 30 pedestrians mobile phones to hold while walking on a prescribed route. The research team planted five obtrusive objects along the route. Pedestrians conversing on the mobile phones recalled fewer of the objects than did those holding a phone but not conversing. There’s a lot more research since then on reduced situational awareness from phones. The findings apply to both pedestrians and drivers. Imagine when both type of journey makers never register seeing one another!

Boot Camp for Peds

Here’s an expression that recruits to military boot camp learn: WALK TALL, WALK PROUD, HEAD UP, EYES FORWARD. For pedestrians, it’s a 21st century update to the old adage ‘look-left, look-right’ before crossing.

Phones, Fire, and Landlines

"We interrupt this program"....text, found on a TV screen, says that you are seeing this message as part of the emergency broadcast system.

Dear Smartphone interrupts this column to provide an announcement from the Emergency Preparedness System….

In Northern California, many households keep two phones: there is the regular cell-phone, and then a separate landline for emergencies. The landline is expected to be the backup when cell towers go down. It is the lifeline to receive an call or reach ‘911’.

During the October, 2019 fires, these landlines often failed…alongside with the PG&E electrical service. It turns out that ‘POTS’, which stands for Plain Old Telephone Service; i.e., the landline connected to a phone jack, is not as reliable as it used to be. Here’s why:

Fiber Optics: Look Again

With the growth of the Internet, fiber optic lines have replaced many copper telephone cables. But, fiber optics don’t have the same ability as copper lines to maintain service indefinitely when there is a power failure Before the Internet, telephone companies routed calls with paired copper cable, a method that required almost no external power, except at the Central Switching Station.

Under everyday conditions, fiber optics are the backbone for calling and the Internet. They out-perform copper wire because of their lightening speed, capacity, and cost. However, fiber optics (and coaxial cable) depend on electricity to power the system. When there is a complete electricity shutdown the fiber optics fail, unless there is an extensive generator for electrical backup.

POTS (plain old phone service) NOT

Today, when households keep a landline, they expect to get the reliability and backup of ‘POTS’. But, it’s often not the case. Many ‘landlines’ now transmit over fiber optics instead of copper lines. According to a valuable survey done shortly after the 2017 fires in Northern California, 85% of those who subscribed to a landline did not know their POTS used fiber optics.

It gets worse, because many users with POTS service, have upgraded their phone receiver (the phone itself), not realizing that it also requires backup power. These wall mounted or desk phones plug into an electrical source. When the electricity cuts off, these phones can operate for up to eight hours if they have an internal battery. However, that assumes the battery is present, fresh, and charged. In the fore-mentioned survey, 28% of the respondents said they just expected the phones to work and only 4% had ordered an optional back-up battery.

Not a Wired Fix

The FCC and the California Public Utilities Commission are fully aware of these issues but there is not a single fix with the demise of copper wires. The problem is compounded because Central Switching Stations, once the bastion for safety and redundancy, often use fiber optics to link between Central Stations. This produces yet another vulnerable communications link during electrical power outages. WSJ reporter Sarah Krouse indicates that FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to wireless carriers in September about how they were preparing for fires and power shutdowns in California.

Apparently Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint all replied detailing the types of backup power available at their sites and the equipment that could quickly be deployed there in the event of an outage. But, it didn’t work out that way for Northern California

‘Know” your Landline

The big picture is that the newest technology brings households a multitude of communication channels, but deny them confidence in a reliable system that operates during emergencies. In practical terms, redundancy counts, so having both a “landline” and a cell phone is clearly better than having just one option. Knowing whether the “landline” operates on fiber optics or copper cable is also useful. And, knowing that you need a spare battery (or generator) to backup the landline could make the difference between no-signal and safety. That said, it’s a complicated network to add to a California’s household brimming emergency prep kit.

Flashlight, App & Halloween

Should we carry a flashlight when the smartphone can light things up for us? Sometimes a redundant ‘Yes.’

This is a list of everyday activities, for example, a calculator, that we now perform with phone apps instead of with a separate device.
The Apps Take Over!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are getting ready for Trick ‘O Treat and have a small family disagreement. My kids (Sponge Bob and Princess) believe that the flashlight on our phones will be sufficient at night. I am old-school, raised in the U.K. and insist that we bring battery-operated flashlights (torches in U.K. speak). Your thoughts? Laurent, Berkeley

Dear Laurent: First and foremost, I hope that Sponge Bob and Princess have a happy and safe adventure. As you get ready for Halloween, it’s great to use this family time to talk with kids about phones.

There are several reasons why you should carry a separate flashlight this Halloween. It will illuminate a wider area, and the batteries will out-last those on a smartphone. But the important reason is ‘redundancy.”


As we come to rely more and more on apps to perform everyday functions (the image speaks loudly!) we need to stay acquainted with older, mechanical methods. Put another way, you want to have both old-fashioned flashlights and newer LED ones in your earthquake safety kit, along with a spare battery or solar charger for your phone. The need for redundancy is a vital lesson for digitally minded kids. It’s particularly important when the wifi network and/or cellular service are both down.


In researching this illuminating topic (!) I came across two more issues. First, beware if you need to download a flashlight app to an older phone. Apparently these apps, particularly on Android phones, can ask for up to 55 permissions to read the phone status, view Internet connections, and have full network access. So consider with your kids the privacy concerns, and speak up for digital security.

Second, it’s not clear that the flashlight app will work at night when you also need to take pictures. Both the flashlight and built-in camera flash need that pulse of light. Since you will want to to record the adventures of Sponge Bob and Princess, it’s best to also carry the torch.