What to do about protecting distracted pedestrians

By Joan Lowy

Associated Press

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 1:25 a.m. MDT

He said there have been several cases of people hit and killed by the authority's trains in which it appears they were wearing headphones or using cellphones while trespassing on tracks.

A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident.

"With the smartphone technology these days and everything at your fingertips, it's almost getting to be an obsession or a compulsion with people," Fox said. "You see it in airports or train stations or malls — if there's any kind of downtime, they're jumping right to that phone."

About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. But that's likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission's data systems.

The cases include a 24-year-old woman who walked into a telephone pole while texting; a 28-year-old man who was walking along a road when he fell into a ditch while talking on a cellphone; a 12-year-old boy who was looking at a video game when he was clipped by a pickup truck as he crossed the street; and a 53-year-old woman who fell off a curb while texting and lacerated her face.

One 67-year-old man walking along the side of a road was hit a by a bicyclist who was talking on a cellphone as he rode. The pedestrian injured a knee.

Though overall traffic deaths were lower in 2010 than the year before, pedestrian fatalities rose by 4.2 percent and injuries by 19 percent, according to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It's not clear how many of the pedestrian deaths and injuries involved cellphones and other electronics because police often don't collect that information.

Even without better data, the Internet yields a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the power of electronics to distract pedestrians.

A woman texting while she walked through in a suburban Philadelphia shopping mall this year tumbled into a large fountain directly in front of her. Security camera video of the incident went viral, generating millions of hits.

A man texting a message to his boss nearly strolled into the path of a black bear that had wandered into a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. He was only a few feet away when he looked up, saw the bear, and ran. A KTLA news helicopter tracking the bear recorded the April incident.

Researchers say they're not surprised that multi-tasking pedestrians run into trouble.

Psychological studies that show most people can't focus on two things at once. Rather, their attention shifts rapidly back and forth between tasks, and performance suffers. But like a lot of drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel, pedestrians often think they're in control and that it's all the other fools on their phones who aren't watching what they're doing.

"I see students as soon as they break from a class, they have their cellphones out and they're texting to one another. They're walking through the door and bumping into one another," said Jack Nasar, an Ohio State University professor and expert on environmental psychology. "People think they can do it, that they are somehow better."

A study Nasar conducted at intersections on campus found that people talking on cellphones were significantly more likely to walk in front of cars than pedestrians not using phones.

A study by researchers at Stony Brook University in New York compared the performance of people asked to walk across a room to a target — a piece of paper taped to the floor — without distractions and then again next day while talking on a cellphone or texting. The group that talked on the cellphone walked slightly slower and veered off course a bit more than previously, but the texting group walked slower, veered off course 61 percent more and overshot the target 13 percent more.

"People really need to be aware that they are impacting their safety by texting or talking on the cellphone" while walking, Eric Lamberg, an associate physical therapy professor who conducted the study, said. "I think the risk is there."

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