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May 21, 2014

The dangers of ‘distracted commuting’

by Heather Redfern - Also by this author

Surveillance footage shows a man at the Berks Station on SEPTA's Market-Frankford subway-elevated line talking on his phone, walking off the platform and falling into the track area. He was not seriously hurt.

Surveillance footage shows a man at the Berks Station on SEPTA's Market-Frankford subway-elevated line talking on his phone, walking off the platform and falling into the track area. He was not seriously hurt.

Super-fast smartphones, tablets and other mobile electronic equipment have not only put the world in the palm of our hands, they have also succeeded in steering our attention away from our immediate surroundings.

“Distracted behaviors caused by being too connected to our electronic devices have become a more frequent occurrence at our stations and transportation centers,” said Scott Sauer, system safety director for Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). “People are so engrossed in what they are reading or listening to on their smartphones that they are stepping out in front of buses and walking off the platforms into the track area.”

RELATED: UTA: 'Distracted walking' fines, other measures working

Over the past year, SEPTA officials have responded to a few track fall incidents each month throughout the transit system, with a majority of those happening on the Market-Frankford subway-elevated and Broad Street subway lines.

Surveillance cameras often show people — some impaired or under the influence, others talking or texting on their phones or otherwise distracted — walking past the yellow warning strip and landing into the track area.

“That is especially troubling on the subway and subway-elevated lines, where not only is the drop from the platform to the track about four feet, there is an electrified third rail,” said Sauer. “And in many cases, our trains are just minutes from entering the stations where the falls had just occurred.”

In some of the videos, those who fall are looking up or down the track for the train, stepping over the warning strip to do so.  

“Looking down the platform does not make the train come faster,” said Sauer. “The safety line is there for a reason. You can still stand behind it and see and hear the train coming.”

Amazingly, only one of these falls has resulted in a fatality. On April 29, 2014, a woman survived a fall into SEPTA’s Broad Street Line tracks even though her leg hit the third rail, which was fully powered.

“In some cases, the victims have suffered cuts, head injuries and broken bones, while others have been able to pull themselves out of the track area,” said Sauer. “Luckily, other passengers have quickly alerted staff to the situations by pressing the emergency call buttons and talking to our cashiers, giving us time to cut off power and stop trains.”

To decrease track fall incidents, SEPTA is making distracted commuting the focus of its second annual systemwide “Make the Safe Choice” Safety Day. On May 21, 500 of the transit system’s employees will distribute educational materials and answer safety questions at 120 SEPTA rail, trolley and bus stations; loops and transportation centers throughout SEPTA’s five-county service area during the morning and evening rush hours.

“Just taking a few seconds to check your surroundings, staying behind yellow lines on platforms and not running to catch a train or bus can be the difference between life and death,” said Sauer. “We can’t emphasize that enough.” 

In case you missed it...

Read our METRO blog, "Advancing women in transportation: Closing the gap"



Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA


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Author Bio

Heather Redfern

Public Information Manager, SEPTA


Marcia Ferranto

President/CEO, WTS International

Marcia Ferranto is President/CEO of WTS International.


Scott Belcher

President and CEO, Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America)


Joe Zavisca

Joe Zavisca is an independent consultant specializing in paratransit service.


Paul Mackie

Communications Director, Mobility Lab

Paul Mackie is communications director at Mobility Lab, a leading U.S. voice of “transportation demand management.”


Rob Taylo

Founder/CEO SinglePoint Communications

Rob Taylo is founder/CEO of SinglePoint Communications, an exclusive U.S. distributor of WiFi in Motion.


Joel Volinski

Director, National Center for Transit Research at CUTR/USF


Zack Shubkagel

Partner/Creative Director of Willoughby Design

Zack Shubkagel is partner and creative director for the San Francisco office of Willoughby Design, a strategic branding and design firm.


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