Walk and Don’t Talk: Pedestrians Distracted by Mobile Phones

Turns out we aren't good at walking and talking at the same time, according to a study of pedestrians on their cell phones.

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Julien de Wilde / Getty Images
Julien de Wilde / Getty Images

Turns out we aren’t good at walking and talking at the same time, according to a study of pedestrians on their cell phones.

Nearly one-third of pedestrians (29.8%) were distracted by their mobile devices while crossing the street, say researchers of a study published online in the journal Injury Prevention.

Just as drivers who text, talk on cell phones, or adjust MP3 players increase their risk of losing control of their vehicles, pedestrians distracted by their conversations or their gadgets also put themselves at higher risk of getting into an accident. Previous work showed that people talking on cell phones were at greater risk of being careless while walking, but those studies focused on simulated environments, so the current study’s authors examined a large number of pedestrians in real-world situations.

(MORE: Man Texts About Needing to Stop Texting, Then Drives Off a Cliff)

During the summer of 2012, scientists in Seattle, Wash., studied 1,102 pedestrians at 20 intersections logging the city’s highest number of pedestrian injuries over the past few years. To include as many people as possible, researchers recorded observations at three different times during the day: 8:00-9:00 a.m. (the morning commute), 12:00-1:00 p.m. (lunch hour), and 4:00-5:00 p.m. (the afternoon commute).

They watched how pedestrians crossed the street — whether they looked both ways or obeyed the intersection signal — and also recorded how long it took pedestrians to do so. Distractions included listening to music with headphones, using a cell phone or earpiece to talk on a cell phone, text messaging, and talking with another person. They also included information on the pedestrians’ gender and made estimates of their ages.

(MORE: Texting and Walking: Dangerous Mix)

Overall, researchers found the most common distraction among pedestrians was listening to music (11.2%), followed by text messaging (7.3%), and using a handheld phone (6.2%). But the most absorbing distraction was texting. Compared to pedestrians who were not distracted, those who were texting took 1.87 seconds longer to cross  and were four times more likely to not look where they were going, disobey traffic lights, or cross outside of the crosswalk. While the study did not track injuries related to these trends, previous studies have linked such activities to a higher risk of being injured while crossing the street.

Combined with the rise in the use of mobile devices, especially smart phones, the results raise concerns that multi-tasking while walking may be a rising concern for pedestrians. And that danger may only climb, as the number of wireless devices has already exceeded the population of the United States. Last year, roughly 1,152 people wound up in the emergency room to treat injuries caused by using a cell phone or electronic device, the Consumer Product Safety Commission told the Associated Press in July. Those numbers may be underestimated, however, because patients may not always admit that they were juggling their phones along with other activities such as walking or driving when they were hurt.

(MORE: The NTSB Calls For a National Ban on Cell Phones Behind The Wheel)

Some states and cities have come up with creative ways to peel pedestrians’ eyes off their phones. Highway safety officials in Delaware put decals on sidewalks and crosswalks, reminding walkers to look ahead. And on April Fools’ Day 2011, Philadelphia officials designated “e-lanes” on sidewalks dedicated to residents locked onto their mobile devices. On the more serious side, bills that would fine pedestrians for wearing headphones or using mobile devices in busy intersections have been introduced in Utah, Illinois, Arkansas, and New York, but none of them have advanced so far.

The study’s authors hope the results bring more public safety attention to the dangers of being distracted by mobile phones, not just for those in a car but for those getting around on their own two feet as well. “Cellphones are great, but when they intrude into tasks that require our full concentration, it puts all of us at risk,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Beth E. Ebel told the New York Times. And no conversation or text is worth that jeopardy.

MORE: Texting While Lifeguarding