Texting may be as dangerous for walkers as it is for drivers, according to a University of Washington study that found one in three pedestrians is distracted by mobile devices while crossing the street.
The study, published in the journal Injury Prevention, says texting is the most dangerous but far from the only distraction. Because texting is such a common behavior, the authors suggest a low-tolerance approach like that directed at drunk driving may be needed to change behaviors.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said more than 1,150 people (a fourfold increase in seven years) were treated in emergency rooms last year in the United States after accidents while they were using handheld devices. Those included a woman who walked off a pier while sending a text and another who face-planted in a water fountain.
“I think people aren’t quite aware of how dangerous distracted walking can be,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at New York’s Lenox Hill Hospital, told ABC News in July. “Keeping your head down while walking and not looking ahead of you can lead to a significant incident of injuries.”
In its observational study, University of Washington researchers watched more than 1,000 pedestrians cross 20 busy road junctions in Seattle at different times of day during summer 2012. As they watched, they noted "distracting" behaviors included talking on the phone, texting, listening to music on mobile devices, talking to others and dealing with children or pets.
Nearly half the distractions they witnessed occurred in the morning rush hour between 8 and 9 a.m. and just over half of those exhibiting distracted behavior were between ages 25 and 44.
According to the researchers, 80 percent were alone and that many also obeyed lights; 94 percent crossed at appropriate locations. But only 25 percent looked both ways and otherwise obeyed routine pedestrian safety rules.
Just under 30 percent were multitasking when they crossed the road, with 11 percent listening to music, 7 percent texting and 6 percent talking on the phone. They noted that those who were distracted took longer to cross, with the exception of the folks listening to music. They crossed faster, but didn't look both ways as often as the others. Pets and children also distracted pedestrians from looking both ways.
But the riskiest behavior belonged to the texters, according to a release about the findings. They took two seconds longer to cross the average junction of three or four lanes. And they were about four times as likely to ignore lights, cross in the wrong place or not look both ways before stepping off the curb.
"Individuals may feel they have safer use than others, view commuting as down time or have compulsive behaviors around mobile device use," the authors said in a release accompanying the study.
"Oh, they always have their heads down, everyone's always walking around like this, you know?" one local pedestrian told KOMO News.
The authors said that crashes involving walkers and vehicles injure 60,000 people and kill 4,000 every year in America.
"We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn't have the data," Jonathan Akins, the deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, told the Associated Press a few months ago.
Several states have tried to tackle the issue but have failed to get enough votes to pass distracted-walking bills. ABC's Linsey Davis wrote that in Philadelphia, "the city pressed on with plans for a new safety campaign after an April Fool’s joke — in which officials taped off an 'e-lane' so that distracted pedestrians could walk freely down the sidewalk — was taken seriously.
“We had people who, once they realized we were going to take the e-lane away, got mad because they thought it was really helpful to not have people get in their way while they were walking and texting,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and public utilities.
Some states use jaywalking statutes and fines to discourage distracted walkers.
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