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Distracted Walking - Dangerous Habit?

Texting, Mobile Phone Use and iPods Distract Walkers


Updated July 02, 2014

Texting pedestrians 80101359.jpg

Texting pedestrians in London

Getty Images

More and more of us are texting, navigating, and talking on cell phones while walking, and pedestrian accidents are increasing. Ohio State University researchers used emergency room data compiled by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. From 2003 to 2010, the injuries sustained while walking and using a mobile phone doubled and increased as a percentage of the total pedestrian injuries.

The younger age groups and men were more likely to have an injury while using a cell phone and walking. We've all heard mom tell us again and again to look both ways before crossing the street. Parents should also include "screens off when crossing the street!"
More: Walking Safety Rules

While laws take aim at using a cell phone while driving, the injuries reported for distracted walking actually exceeded those of distracted driving in the database.

Texting Walkers Cross Slower and More Dangerously
A 2012 study published in the journal Injury Prevention observed over 1000 people crossing an intersection. Those who were texting while crossing took almost two extra seconds to cross, which is 18% slower than average. They were 3.9 times more likely to display an unsafe crossing behavior. These include disobeying the lights, crossing mid-intersection, or failing to look both ways. More people were texting (7.3%) vs. talking on a handheld phone (6.2%).

Only one in four people observed all four pedestrian safety rules. Interestingly, those who were listening to music crossed a half second faster than average.
More: Jaywalking - the Walker's Crime

Fines for Distracted Walking?
Back in 2007, a New York state senator proposed a fine of $100 for people who use an iPod or cell phone while in a crosswalk. State Senator Carl Kruger was concerned over deaths of Brooklyn pedestrians who stepped into traffic while using a distracting gadget. Are we going too far into the nanny state?

Invasion of the iPod Zombies
Andrew Sullivan noted as early as 2005 in The Sunday Times that New Yorkers have retreated into the iWorld. The term iPod Zombie has even made it into the Urban Dictionary. But how big of a safety problem is distracted walking?

It's not the iPod, it's the Booze
Where are the stats to back up the need for this ban? A study comparing pedestrian fatalities from 1998-2001 lists "inattentive" as one of the factors, but a minor one seen in only 3% of the fatalities. Meanwhile, the real culprit is alcohol, with 40% of all pedestrian fatalities involving pedestrian use of alcohol according to a 2003 study. It would make much more sense to criminalize walking drunk rather than distracted walking habits.

Races Ban Earbuds and Headphones
Some walking and running events ban wearing earbuds and headphones while on the course in the interest of safety and etiquette. Most have at least a caution that you shouldn't use them on the course, or recommend wearing only one earbud. As with distracted drivers, people seem as distracted when in conversation with their walking or running buddies rather than when plugged into an iPod. Texting and mobile phone calls appear much more distracting than simply listening to iPods as people are carrying on an interactive conversation.

Screens Down - Hang Up and Walk
People do much more with their phones than just make calls. You may be checking texts and social media alerts or playing games. As a walker, I use my iPhone apps for tracking distance and workouts, maps, taking photos, and to listen to music, podcasts and audiobooks.

As with driving, make sure you are in a safe position before you check your screen. A whopping 67% of pedestrians hit by autos in New York City were in the crosswalk and had the Walk signal. That statistic comes from the Freakonomics podcast, The Perfect Crime. It isn't safe in the crosswalk. Eyes up and screens down when you cross a street!

Jack L. Nasar, Derek Troyer Pedestrian injuries due to mobile phone use in public places. Accident Analysis & Prevention
. August, 2013, pages 91-95.

Pedestrian Roadway Fatalities, US Department of Transportation, National Traffic Safety Administration, April, 2003. Accessed June 29, 2014.

Leah L Thompson, Frederick P Rivara, Rajiv C Ayyagari, Beth E Ebel, "Impact of social and technological distraction on pedestrian crossing behaviour: an observational study." Inj Prev Published Online First: 13 December 2012 doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2012-040601.

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