January 27, 2009

Cell phones distract kids crossing streets

Children who talk on cell phones while crossing streets are at a higher risk for injuries or death in a pedestrian accident, U.S. researchers said.

Psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham studied the issue using a virtual reality software program and three screens to display an actual Birmingham-area crosswalk with simulated vehicles of different sizes traveling on the virtual street.

The study, published in the February issue of Pediatrics, found that all of the children --- even those who were experienced with talking on cell phones, crossing streets or rated as highly attentive -- were more likely to exhibit risky behaviors when they crossed the virtual street while talking on a cell phone.

Children using a cell phone took 20 percent longer to begin crossing the street, and they were 43 percent more likely to be hit by a vehicle or have a close call in the virtual environment. In addition, the children looked both ways 20 percent less often before crossing the street and gave themselves 8 percent less time to cross safely in front of oncoming traffic when they were on the cell phone.

The 77 children, ages 10-11, completed simulated street crossings in the virtual environment. They were asked to cross the virtual street six times without a cell phone and six times while talking on a cell phone.

Doctoral student Despina Stavrinos, under the direction of psychologist David Schwebel, completed the study with graduate student Katherine Byington also contributing to the study.