Distracted Walking Quickly Becoming As Dangerous As Distracted Driving

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Distracted behavior is a burgeoning problem in our society, largely due to mobile technology. While distracted driving is arguably the most dangerous when it comes to mobile use, another type of distraction is quickly becoming a safety concern.

A new study, published online in the journal Injury Prevention, warns that distracted walking is quickly becoming just as much of a hazard as distracted driving.

The researchers found that texting while crossing the street was the riskiest activity, with pedestrians four times more likely to ignore oncoming traffic and disobey traffic signals while checking their devices.

The study also found that texters took much longer to cross a street than those who do not text while doing the same task. The findings of the study have prompted the authors to suggest a low tolerance approach may be needed to keep pedestrians from partaking in such dangerous activities.

The study is based on the behaviors of more than 1,000 pedestrians crossing 20 busy road intersections in Seattle during the summer of 2012. The authors followed pedestrians at different times during the day to see when distracted pedestrians are most likely to be out and about.

While distracted texting was the top problem seen in the study, the authors, led by Dr. Beth Ebel, of Harborview Injury Prevention & Research Center at the University of Washington, other comparable distractions were talking on the phone, listening to music, talking to others and dealing with children or pets.

Ebel and her colleagues made nearly half of their observations in the morning between 8 and 9 am. They found that just over half of the people observed were between 25 and 44.

The team found that 4 out of 5 pedestrians were alone and about 80 percent of them obeyed the traffic signals, with 94 percent of them crossing at the appropriate time. However, only one in four pedestrians followed the full safety routine, which includes looking both ways before crossing the street.

Furthermore, nearly one in three of the pedestrians observed were doing something distracting while crossing the street: 11 percent were listening to music, 7 percent were texting and 6 percent were talking on the phone.

And the average distracted street-crosser took about 0.75 to 1.29 seconds longer than those with no distractions. While those listening to music were among the fastest distracted pedestrians to cross the road, the researchers found they were less likely to look both ways before doing so. People with children and pets were nearly three times as likely to cross without looking both ways.

However, according to the researchers, texting was potentially the most risky behavior. Texters took the longest to cross the road–nearly 2 seconds (18%) longer to cross a busy three or four lane street than those who were not texting at the time. And this group of people was nearly four times as likely to ignore traffic signals, to cross at the middle of an intersection, or fail to look both ways before stepping into traffic.

“Texters were four times less likely to cross the road safely, by looking both ways and obeying the lights. They took a constellation of risks of the kind that put people at high risk of being seriously injured,” Ebel told Mail Online´s Jenny Hope in an interview. She noted that young teenagers and young adults were the worst offenders.

“The observers were student researchers and they were taken aback by what they were seeing. It made them think, and I believe schools should conduct this kind of exercise to make children aware of the risks of being distracted,” she added.

There is increasing concern about the near trance-like state people adopt when they are using their mobile devices. Psychologists have adopted names for the condition, calling it “divided attention” or “inattentional blindness.”

Safety campaigners have become increasingly aware of the issue and are worried about the safety of pedestrians in these areas. Advertising campaigns similar to those getting people to wear their seat belts and avoid texting while driving might work here as well, Ebel said.

But people who use their mobile devices are prey to “compulsive behavior” which is not necessarily rational, she added. “They may feel they are safer than other people while texting – they are capable of doing it while crossing the road.”

“The trouble is when the phone rings they answer it wherever they are, and don´t realize they need full concentration in a situation which is potentially dangerous,” she added.

Ebel and her colleagues point out that accidents involving vehicles and pedestrians injure 60,000 people and kill 4,000 every year in the US, and just like distracted driving, distracted walking can be equally as dangerous. And as hand held devices become increasingly more popular as they are quickly taking over as the mainstream form of media, the dangers will likely increase, leading to further injuries and death, they suggest.

“Ultimately a shift in normative attitudes about pedestrian behavior, similar to efforts around drunk-driving, will be important to limit the“¦risk of mobile device use,” conclude the researchers.

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