Walking in traffic: the dangers of cell phone distraction

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“Look both ways before you cross the street.” Along with, “Stop, drop and roll,” it’s a safety lesson that is drilled into children from a very young age. Yet for all of our practice, according to research from psychologists at the University of Illinois, pedestrians have a tendency to skimp on safety when distracted by talking on a cell phone—even when using a hands-free device. Of course, it’s already been shown that walking and texting can prove hazardous, but for all of our confidence in blue tooth ear pieces and other hands-free devices, in an analysis of college students instructed to cross a virtual street either while listening to music or having a phone conversation, students chatting away took 25% longer to cross the street, struggled to complete the task within the allotted 30 seconds, and were much more likely to get virtually run over than peers not talking on the phone. In contrast, study participants who were listening to music proved just as capable as other, unfettered pedestrians when it came to crossing the street.

The study, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, was followed up by currently unpublished research, which demonstrated that older pedestrians distracted by cell phone conversations were even more likely to become traffic casualties. When talking on cell phones while navigating a busy street, people ages 60 and older were 15% more likely than younger pedestrians to get run over.

The research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that all of our advances in gadgetry may be coming at a cost.