Of all the senseless ways to end up in the emergency room, getting injured because you're walking while using your cell phone has to be up near the top. Yet at least 1,500 Americans told that embarrassing story in 2010, according to research being published next month in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention. Data from hospitals across the country show that figure has climbed steadily since 2005:
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Just as behavioral scientists have found time and again that drivers are distracted by their mobile phones, so too have they found that pedestrians have a tough time walking and talking at once. In one experiment from a few years back, pedestrians talking on their phones recalled less of their surroundings than did regular walkers. In another test, researchers confirmed this "inattentional blindness" when they found that, compared to typical pedestrians, people talking and walking were less likely to notice even something as ridiculous as a clown on a unicycle.
At the root of the problem is the fact that at a cognitive level, there's a lot more work involved in maintaining a cell phone call than you might think. In 2011, one research group reported that pedestrians on their mobile phones used as much brain power as people engaged in a somewhat complex spatial task. People in a crosswalk simulator reached the other side more quickly while doing a math problem, for instance, than while conversing on a cell phone.
Of course, as we pointed out a while back, not all distracted walking is created equal. Some research has concluded that listening to music while walking has no negative impact on pedestrian behavior. On the contrary, there's some evidence that listeners might even pay more attention while walking.
What's important about the new data on hospital visits is that the increase in injuries while talking and walking occurred even as total pedestrian injuries decreased. Talking was a bigger culprit than texting, accounting for 70 percent and 9 percent of the injuries, respectively. (That doesn't mean necessarily mean walking and texting is less distracting; it may just occur less often.) Injured pedestrian tended to be on the younger side of 25, and the authors of the new paper think parents should make "don't talk and walk" the new "look both ways before you cross the street."
At the end of the day, distracted walking isn't nearly the problem distracted driving is—far more often an annoyance to other pedestrians than a genuine safety risk. While legislative efforts to ban the practice have all failed (and, let's be honest, probably should fail), there are still some pretty simple street design measures that cities can take to address the problem. New York's "LOOK" campaign tries to alert distracted pedestrians before they cross the street, and one can also imagine some jolting pedestrian equivalent to highway rumble strips.
Then again, if distracted walkers don't notice a clown on a unicycle, you have to wonder if anything will catch their attention.