Pokémon no! Playing the popular game while driving is risky

Large numbers of people are playing Pokémon Go in the car, causing dangerous distractions

Playing Pokémon Go while driving causes risky distractions.

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It seems everyone has caught the Pokémon craze. Just don’t let anyone drive and play Pokémon Go. Doing this while behind the wheel of a car simply isn’t safe, a new study finds.

That conclusion is hardly surprising. “Most people would say it’s not a good idea,” says David Strayer of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Yet alarming numbers of people do play the game while driving. They can be seen, phone in hand, flicking cartoon balls at cartoon creatures on the screen.

That’s what a new study reported online September 16 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Strayer wasn’t involved in the Pokémon Go study. He has, however, studied how cell phones can distract drivers. Playing an immersive video game such as Pokémon Go while driving may be even more dangerous than reading a text message while driving, he now says. That’s because it pulls attention away from the road longer and with more lasting effects.

John Ayers works at San Diego State University in California. For the new study, his team searched the social-media site Twitter for posts (or tweets) that contained the words Pokémon and “driving,” “drives,” “drive” or “car.” They turned up more than 345,000 tweets during just one 10-day period in July. Of those, 113,993 tweets indicated that a driver, passenger or pedestrian was distracted by the augmented-reality game.

“This is an incredibly large number,” says Ayers. And many more people likely played the game while driving without tweeting about it.

About one in every six of those tweets indicated a driver was playing the game, Ayers and his colleagues found. A little more than one in 10 came from distracted passengers. And one in every 25 came from pedestrians. News reports during that same time period showed that drivers playing Pokémon Go caused at least 14 car crashes.

Pokémon Go was designed to encourage people to explore their neighborhoods. Scattered PokéStops dispense Pokémon-catching tools. And the game’s creatures pop into existence as a player moves. Players incubate and hatch eggs containing the creatures by covering more ground.

Unlike activities such as texting, the game rewards players for moving around as they play, notes Ayers. The fact that moving around allows Pokémon players to rack up points “fosters dangerous behaviors,” he says.

And it’s not just drivers who can pose risks. Passengers trying to “catch them all” may direct drivers to stop, turn or make other dangerous moves, Strayer worries. Pedestrians playing the game may walk into traffic.

The game does ask players to confirm they are passengers if it senses they are moving too fast. But game makers could build more safety restrictions into the game, researchers say. For example, the game could freeze at driving speeds. Its designers also could make it inaccessible for a short while after a car comes to a stop. That, after all, might discourage stoplight play breaks, Ayers says.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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