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It took a study to show Pokemon Go is a distracted-driving hazard

A man uses a mobile phone July 27 in front of an advertisement board bearing the image of Pokemon Go at an electronic shop in Tokyo, Japan. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon/File Photo

ST. PAUL—Players of Pokemon Go, the smartphone-based creature-hunting videogame that has swept the nation, usually play while on foot.

But some have found it expedient to search for Pokemon critters while in the car because they can cover more ground with less effort. It's not uncommon for this to become a family activity, with the kids playing in the back seat while a parent drives.

Now, however, there's evidence that Pokemon Go fans also play while driving or otherwise put themselves at risk—and that this is a public-safety crisis in the making.

A new study, based on a scouring of social media and online news stories, discovered more than 100,000 distinct instances within a 10-day period of distracted drivers playing Pokemon Go. Some of these instances led to accidents.

The study, recently posted on the American Medical Association's JAMA Internal Medicine website, focuses on information harvested from Twitter and Google News.

On Twitter, the authors searched for tweets that used the word "Pokemon" along with "driving," "drives," drive" or "car." Their Google News searches looked for "Pokemon" and "driving."

Analysis of the Twitter data found that 33 percent of tweets about potentially dangerous Pokemon Go play involved a moving vehicle in some capacity. This broke down as follows:

-- 18 percent of tweets indicated a person was playing and driving ("omg I'm catching Pokémon and driving")

-- 11 percent indicated a passenger was playing ("just made sis drive me around to find Pokémon")

-- 4 percent indicated a pedestrian was distracted ("almost got hit by a car playing Pokémon Go")

"There were 14 unique crashes—one player drove his car into a tree—attributed to Pokémon Go in news reports during the same period," the study says.

"Traditional surveillance is needed to clarify our findings," the study authors concede. "Still, even with a limited scope covering just 10 days, there were more than 110, 000 discrete instances where drivers or pedestrians were distracted by Pokémon Go, and some crashed."

The context for this is just as troubling, they went on.

They note that motor-vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death among 16- to 24-year-olds, which are a prime Pokemon Go audience, and that six in 10 crashes involving younger drivers happen within six seconds of the driver being distracted.

Pokemon Go is an "augmented reality" game with its imagery—including Pokemon creatures—shown on a screen as appearing in the real-world. The object is to wander around capturing them, among other challenges.

Twin Cities-area Pokemon Go players acknowledge that they fight the urge to play while driving, with varying degrees of success. In many cases, they impose rules on themselves for greater safety.

"I turn the game on while driving but I don't play unless I'm at a red light," one user posted on Facebook. "If the light turns green then I hand the phone to my daughter for her to catch them."

Another wrote, "I always have it on in the car and my phone sits on an arm attached to the windshield. If I'm stopped (especially at an intersection that's not moving for a while) then I will definitely catch a Pokemon or two. If it's a serious Pokemon, I haven't been too proud to pull over when I see a good catch."

Still another wrote, "Driving through Minneapolis, (it's) impossible to resist the temptation to pay a little attention to the game ... (but) catching is hard. If it's a difficult catch at all, I'll have to pull over so I can use both hands."

Yet another wrote, "I played all the time while driving. There, I said it. Now I can't. The speed restriction worked."

That player's post refers to a recent Pokemon Go app update that restricted while-in-motion gameplay to about 6 mph or less as a safety precaution.

More such safety features are required, the JAMA study authors insist.

"Pokémon Go is a new distraction for drivers and pedestrians, and safety messages are scarce," they argue. "Delayed reaction to mobile-phone distractions has hampered public safety.

"Our findings can help develop strategies for game developers, legislators and the public to limit the potential dangers of Pokemon Go and other augmented-reality games," they went on.

"It is in the public interest to address (this) before social norms develop that encourage unsafe practices. Now is the time to develop appropriate controls."