Tackling distracted walking with new PSA

Who: Upstream and the Downtown Yonge BIA, with production from Alter Ego.

What: “Distracted Walking,” a PSA urging people to keep their “heads up, devices down.”

When & Where: The campaign broke in early July, timed to coincide with young people being out of school, tourist season, etc. The creative is currently running on digital boards at Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, complemented by targeted digital and social.

Why: Smartphones are contributing to a sharp rise in distracted walking, particularly among younger Canadians. In a 2018 study of more than 3,000 Canadians of driving age conducted by Desjardins Insurance, 30% of respondents admitted to texting while walking near a public road. The number jumped to 60% among people 16-24.

According to the U.S. National Safety Council, pedestrian deaths rose nearly 60% between 2009 and 2016, with texting and walking resulting in approximately 11,000 injuries a year. The growing phenomenon has led some jurisdictions to implement a so-called “Zombie Law” making texting while walking a finable offence.

As the parent of three “device-obsessed” daughters aged 22, 20 and 18, Upstream founder, writer and director Paul Wales says he has been cautioning against this type of behaviour for some time.

“Epidemic is maybe a strong word, but I started to notice that every year there seemed to be more and more distracted people,” says Wales. “In any other circumstance, you would never do this. If you were at a speedway, for example, you wouldn’t walk on the track. That was the germ of the idea.”

How: Two videos show young people obliviously texting and walking in highly dangerous environments—a motocross event and a rodeo—with the super “You wouldn’t do this.” The scene then abruptly shifts to a busy urban street, accompanied by the super “So why do this?”

The concept was originally conceived for a handset manufacturer, says Wales, but Upstream pivoted towards making it a PSA. “It seemed to be better coming from a community than from a manufacturer.”

Upstream is also providing license-free usage of the campaign for any organization wishing to amplify the message.

And we quote: “We firmly believe in the City of Toronto’s ‘Vision Zero Plan,’ and think it’s important to release this PSA in time for the summer season around the issue and risk of distracted walking on Canada’s busiest street.”—Mark Garner, chief operating officer, Downtown Yonge BIA.



Chris Powell