A lot of people have been dangerously close to getting into similar accidents, according to the study published Friday in JAMA Internal Medicine.
In an effort to plumb how much of a menace players of the wildly popular augmented reality game present, the researchers analyzed 345,433 tweets between July 10 and 19 that contained the words "Pokemon" and "driving, drives, drive" or "car."
Eighteen percent of those showed that someone was playing and driving. Eleven percent suggested a passenger was playing, and 4 percent suggested a pedestrian was playing near traffic.
It's difficult to assess from Twitter just how big the problem is overall. Not everyone uses social media, and of the people who do tweet, not all of them will post about their motor vehicle adventures with Pokemon Go. "[So] we know we're undercounting," says John Ayers, a big data scientist at San Diego State University and an author of the study.
But undercounting by how much is impossible to say, and the analysis didn't reveal if people were getting into crashes or not. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1,161 people are injured daily in crashes involving distractions like calls or texting. In Ayers' 10-day study period, they found 14 Pokemon Go-related motor vehicle accidents in a separate search of media reports.
Still, catching Pokemon could be a special hazard to the road, Ayers thinks. "This is a new distraction amplified for many, many reasons," he says. "In the case of augmented reality games, the goal is to interact with your environment." In driving, that can be dangerous.
And people may choose to drive so they can cover more ground and catch more Pokemon, spending a prolonged time driving and using the app. "You get in the car to go play. Think about that. That's crazy."
The data show that catching Pokemon is a threat to drivers and pedestrians, agrees Catherine McDonald, a researcher at the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Nursing and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who studies risky driving in teens. And it could be particularly true for young people, who may prioritize a charmander, possibly the cutest Pokemon in the game, over the road. "The gaming aspect or the collecting of Pokemon and the competition aspect may outweigh some of the [safety] risks for them," she says.
Pokemon GO already shows warning alerts when the phone is moving over a certain speed limit and disables the game if the user indicates they're driving. But, Ayers says that Niantic, the game developer, should go further like excluding play for everyone traveling at driving speeds, including passengers. Niantic did not respond to a request for comment.
Similar to how regulations require the automotive industry to include features like seat belts, Ayers says tech developers should have a responsibility to public safety as they use new technologies, like the augmented reality feature that Pokemon GO employs. "We need to make it so not just Pokemon Go but all augmented reality are restricted in some way when you're at speed or recently been at speed," he says.
Developers like Niantic might be able to update the app to make it safer, but data scientist Sean Young at UCLA and the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology says they're not obligated to make something safe. "It's up to researchers and public health officials to be able to keep up to date with technologies like this," he says, "and when these things should be regulated and how."
Understanding that is going to take effort from people with varied expertise. "Technology is having such a strong effect on our lives [that] we need multiple areas to converge," Young says. "The developers of Pokemon Go can do one thing. Researchers can also help. Law enforcement can also help."
And, Young adds, consumers need to decide what tech they use, and when.
Angus Rohan Chen is a reporter and radio producer living in New York City. He has a dry wit and no hobbies. Please be his friend on Twitter: @angRchen.