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Pokemon Go Really, Really Distracts Drivers: Study

by Maggie Fox /
A "Pidgey" Pokemon is seen on the screen of the Pokemon Go mobile app, Nintendo's new scavenger hunt game which utilizes geo-positioning, in a photo illustration taken in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada July 11, 2016. REUTERS

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One user admits to being "a momentary idiot." Another says he "never looked creepier." These are just a couple of the thousands of avid Pokémon Go players who confess they've used the popular game while driving.

A new study out Friday confirms it: Pokémon Go is causing a whole new level of distracted driving.

John Ayers of San Diego State University and colleagues combed through social media posts on Twitter and looked at news stories for evidence of people having accidents while driving and playing the immensely popular game during a 10-day stretch soon after its release –- July 10-19.

“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 team wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine.

The game's so absorbing that people even take screenshots of themselves playing the game and driving -- even as they admit it's dangerous.

“Being a momentary idiot driving my car and trying to catch this guy,” one user, Georgii Speakman, tweeted, posting a screenshot of an orange Pokémon Go character superimposed on the steering wheel.

Related: Pokemon Go Becomes Biggest Game in History

Pokémon Go uses smartphones equipped with GPS to take players through a virtual map, superimposed on real-world surroundings, to collect virtual cartoon characters and to interact with other players.

It’s been lauded as a stealth exercise product because it encourages players to go at walking speeds –- and rewards players who walk long distances while “incubating” characters.

Related: Police Issue Pokémon Go Safety Alerts

But the absorbing nature of the game has also led to problems, from distracted players wandering into traffic to the Baltimore driver who sideswiped a police car last July.

“Eighteen percent of tweets indicated a person was playing and driving (‘omg I’m catching Pokémon and driving’) and 11 percent indicated a passenger was playing (‘just made sis drive me around to find Pokémon'),” they wrote.

Related: Pokemon Go and Driving Don't Mix

“Four percent indicated a pedestrian was distracted (‘almost got hit by a car playing Pokémon GO’).

While some may have been a joke, some were clearly genuine, said the researchers, who reviewed the reports carefully. They found 4,000 tweets referring to driving and being distracted while playing the game.

And the consequences are no joke at all. "Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 16- to 24-year-olds, whom the game targets," Ayers and colleagues wrote.

"Moreover, according to the American Automobile Association, 59 percent of all crashes among young drivers involve distractions within six seconds of the accident," they added.

“Now is the time to develop appropriate controls."

The game does try, and recent social media posts suggest that controls are working -– sometimes a little too well.

“Pokémon Go makers can also voluntarily make their game safer. Game play is already restricted at speeds greater than 10 miles per hour,” the team added.

“Making the game inaccessible for a period after any driving speed has been achieved may be necessary given our observations that players are driving or riding in cars. At the same time augmented reality games might be disabled near roadways or parking lots to protect pedestrians and drivers alike, given reports of distractions herein. Games might also include clear warnings about driving and pedestrian safety.”

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