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Phones put pedestrians in a fog

Hundreds of 'nonmotorized' people are injured each year while distracted by cell phones

Consumer Reports magazine: August 2012

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Illustration: Christoph Hitz

A few years ago, people walking on a college campus while using a cell phone were asked whether they’d just seen “anything unusual.” Only 8 percent said yes. But Western Washington University researchers had indeed planted an unusual passerby: a unicycle-riding clown in a purple and yellow outfit.

In a new survey, Consumer Reports found that 85 percent of Americans had in the past six months seen someone use a mobile device to talk, text, e-mail, or use apps while walking in public. Of those who had witnessed such behavior, 52 percent felt that the pedestrians endangered themselves or others.

It’s clear that drivers aren’t the only people distracted by devices. Numbers are hard to pin down, but research using federal data as part of an Ohio State University graduate-student project estimated that 1,506 “nonmotorized” people—mostly pedestrians—were hurt nationwide in 2010 while distracted by cell phones, an increase of about 186 cases per year between 2004 and 2010. Reports for 2009 and 2010 show that most injuries occurred while the pedestrian was talking, followed by reaching for the phone, then texting. It’s no surprise that some cities are starting to crack down on distracted walkers.

What our survey said. Of Americans who saw at least one pedestrian using a phone, 42 percent saw someone bump into a person or object or walk in front of a moving bicycle; 34 percent saw someone step in front of a moving vehicle. “Everyone knows to look left and right,” says Ryan Stanton, a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, “but when you’re texting, you forget the rules of survival.”

Stanton, also an emergency doctor, cites a patient who walked into a street sign (head laceration) and another who hit a fire hydrant (serious shin cut), plus “countless twisted ankles” in cell-phone users who have stepped off an unnoticed curb.

Northeasterners were more likely than others to have seen a pedestrian using a mobile device—92 percent had. Among Northeasterners who witnessed such behavior, 42 percent saw someone walk in front of a moving vehicle, compared with just 27 percent of Midwesterners. People over 55 were far more likely to consider the practice a hazard than those 18 to 34. But similar percentages of men and women called distracted walking dangerous.

Bottom line. If you must walk and talk or text, act like a driver and pull over into a quiet area. “At any point if you’re moving, you need to have your head up,” Stanton says. “If you need to text, just stop for 5 seconds, make your text, and that way you won’t worry about traffic, fire hydrants, and manhole covers. Whatever your hurry, it’s not worth ending up in the hospital.”

Need more evidence of risk? Researchers at Stony Brook University found that phone-using walkers had “significant reductions in gait velocity” and an “increase in lateral deviation.” In other words, they walked like snails and zigzagged toward their destination. That news was announced in January—a few months before a California man nearly walked and texted his way into the arms of a black bear.

What you saw

 

Pedestrian used mobile device in busy area

85%

 . . . and bumped into something

42% (of the 85%)

 . . . or stepped in front of moving vehicle

34% (of the 85%)

From a nationally representative poll of 1,008 adults 18 and older conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center.

   

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