Study: 'Pokémon Go' Led to Increase in Traffic Accidents

Crashes rose 26.5 percent in one Indiana county following game's launch.

Credit: Niantic

People are dying to catch that legendary Mewtwo – literally. A recent study from Purdue University (currently unpublished and awaiting peer review) reports that popular augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go caused a spike in traffic accidents in one Indiana county in the months following its launch.

The study, titled "Death By Pokémon," was written by two Purdue economists, Mara Faccio and John J. McConnell. Faccio tells Glixel she got the idea from a friend who confessed to driving while playing Pokémon Go. The professors combed through nearly 12,000 detailed police accident reports for Tippecanoe County, Indiana and found a disproportionate increase in vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities near PokéStops – real-world locations where players can collect Poké Balls and other in-game items.

Pokémon Go was responsible for 134 accidents in the county during its first 148 days, the study found. This reportedly led to an estimated $498,567 in vehicular damage, 31 injuries, and two deaths. So, how do we know the accidents were due to Pokémon Go and not other factors like school breaks and the weather? Faccio and McConnell say they narrowed the time interval of their analysis to account for those possibilities.

"This greatly reduces the number of unobserved shocks that might spuriously give rise to our results, since by narrowing the time interval employed we exclude, by construction, any confounding events that occur outside the time interval," they write in the study.

The study also compared PokéStops to PokéGyms to prove the accidents were due to drivers playing the game. While it's possible to snag some quick Poké Balls from a location while on the road, it's nearly impossible for a player to engage in a raid or gym battle while driving. With this in mind, Faccio and McConnell compared the change in the number of crashes near Gyms to the number of crashes near PokéStops and found a significantly greater increase in the latter.

While the study's authors say extrapolating their results on a statewide or national scale is "speculative," they say more than 145,000 accidents, more than 29,000 injuries, and an estimated 256 additional deaths nationwide could've been caused by playing Pokémon Go while driving in the five-month period following its release. The implied nationwide economic cost of these accidents ranged from $2 billion to $7.3 billion.

"Using these numbers as a basis for policy recommendations is tempting," Faccio and McConnell write. "The immediate impulse is to recommend further bans on the use of mobile phones while driving."

Faccio and McConnell are not the first people to investigate Pokémon Go's effect on drivers. Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) commissioned its own study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers used data mining to search Google News and Twitter for keywords like "Pokémon" and "driving" from July 10, 2016 through July 19, 2016. Out of nearly 350,000 tweets, they sent a random sample of 4,000 to investigators to determine whether a driver, passenger, or pedestrian was playing Pokémon Go. They found that 33 percent of tweets indicated someone was distracted by the game. That's over 113,000 incidents in just 10 days.

Right now, mobile video games exist in a sort of legal gray area. While it's illegal to send a text or make a phone call while driving, many state laws don't specifically mention game apps like Pokémon Go. But, that could slowly be changing. Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a new law making it illegal to do just about anything on a phone while driving, including playing games. Drivers can only use their phones if they're mounted to the car, and they can only do simple taps. So, an Uber or Lyft driver can still accept a ride, but catching that Charizard is a no-no.

Developer Niantic is also doing a good job at self-regulating. It rolled out a feature last year that prompted players to indicate if they were the driver or passenger whenever the game detected they were in a moving vehicle. Of course, this relied on people being honest. So, Niantic came up with another solution. The game now prevents Pokémon from appearing in an area if it detects the player is in a car going more than 30 mph. It's not foolproof, of course. People can still tool around their neighborhoods below the speed limit and play. But, we don't recommend it.