Distracted Walking Puts Pedestrians at Risk

This is the first post of a two part series on pedestrian road safety.

Since 1975, annual pedestrian fatalities have decreased by 41%, from about 7,000 down to less than 5,000 in 2011. But a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study released last month revealed that pedestrian fatalities are on the rise again. Total pedestrian fatalities increased by 3% in 2011, following a 4% increase in 2010.

Many are blaming the uptick in pedestrian deaths on people walking while distracted by cell phones and other mobile devices. But could distracted walking be a real traffic safety problem? How concerned do we actually need to be?

It Seems Ridiculous, But…

We’re used to seeing distracted walking mishaps in a humorous context, so it can be hard to imagine that this could be a real safety issue.

Pedestrians using cell phones have been caught on camera falling into fountains, stumbling onto subway tracks, and tripping down stairs. One Los Angeles texter even walked right up to a bear.

A series of public service announcements sponsored by StopTextsStopWrecks.org also treats distracted walking as an embarrassing but essentially harmless occurance, as a contrast to the deadly consequences of distracted driving. The ads warn that “Not everyone should text and walk,” but “No one should text and drive.”

But as silly as it might seem, studies show that distraction actually does have a real effect on how safely we walk.

Distraction Makes You Worse at Walking

Walking seems automatic and natural, but a study from Stony Brook University’s physical therapy department found that talking and texting on a cell phone actually made walking more difficult.

Participants in the study were shown a target on the floor, and were asked to walk to the target with their vision obstructed. A week later, the participants returned to complete the same task again. With their vision obstructed except for the ability to see a cell phone, one third completed the same task, one third completed the task while talking on the cell phone, and one third completed the task while texting.

Participants walked significantly more slowly and less accurately while using a cell phone to text or talk, indicating that brain areas controlling executive function and attention are just as necessary for walking as they are for driving.

More Distracted Walking Injuries Treated in Emergency Rooms

According to a study released this summer by the Ohio State University, more than 1,500 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for injuries related to cell phone use while walking in 2010 alone.

The number of such injuries has more than doubled since 2005, while overall pedestrian injuries actually dropped during this time.

Distracted pedestrians ages 16-25 were the most likely to be injured. Talking on the phone accounted for 69% of injuries, compared to texting, which only accounted for 9%. But researchers caution that this is because fewer pedestrians text while walking, not because this behavior is actually safer.

Impact and Solutions Not Yet Known

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, we still don’t know how distracted walking may be affecting overall crash statistics, and it’s not clear what solutions could be effective. While some education efforts have taken place, such programs have not yet been formally evaluated.

New York State Senator Carl Kruger has tried several times to ban the use of cell phones, iPods, and other mobile devices by pedestrians crossing the street in major cities. Arkansas State Senator Jimmy Jeffress introduced a bill in 2011 to prohibit pedestrians and cyclists from wearing headphones in both ears. Bicyclists are already banned from wearing headphones in both ears in California. But so far, no pedestrian-focused mobile device ban has become reality.

Even so, you can still take actions to stay safe. Keep your eyes off your mobile device and focused on your surroundings, especially near intersections. You can even consider finding a safe place to stop while you send your text message, or pausing your phone conversation while you cross the street.

Looking Beyond Distraction

While distracted walking has received a lot of attention recently, it’s not the only contributor to pedestrian fatalities or even the most serious factor.

In our next post, we’ll talk about other risk factors, including street design and alcohol involvement, plus what you can do to stay safe and make your community more pedestrian-friendly!

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