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Hang Up and Walk: An Old Lesson for the Smartphone Era

My how things have changed since I was a kid. I remember a school project in my first or second grade class at Christ the King Catholic School in Queens N.Y. where we competed to make the best poster concerning lessons learned about safely crossing the street. Most posters featured slogans such as “only cross at the corners,” “look both ways before crossing”, “walk, don’t run, across the street”, and “stop, look, and listen.” Watching pedestrians today, however, shows that these simple and smart lessons are not outdated. While awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, the topic I discussed in last month’s blog, is increasing, distracted walking is a related and growing issue that needs to be discussed.

The next time you are walking around town, notice the number of people engaged with their smart phones while crossing the street or walking on the sidewalk. Chances are, more than half the people you see will be texting or talking on their phones, rendering them more or less oblivious to what is happening around them.

Studies show that accidents due to distracted walking have been increasing rapidly since 2005. According to Michael Zak of AOL Autos, there are two troubling trends occurring. Mr. Zak states, “Pedestrians were one of the few groups of road users to experience an increase in fatalities in the US in 2011, totaling 4,432 deaths and an estimated 69,000 injuries via a report from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). On average a pedestrian is killed every two hours and injured every eight minutes.” He also says that distracted walking behaviors such as texting, talking on the phone, and listening to music have played a role in the increase of pedestrian accidents.

Another study, authored by Ohio State professor Jack Nasar and graduate student Derek Troyer, suggests the number of emergency room visits as a result of distracted walking could double between 2010 and 2015. The authors sampled injury reports from 100 hospitals around the country and  estimated the total distracted walking injury occurrences resulting in emergency room visits around the country using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. The study examined data for seven years (2004-2010) involving injuries related to cell phone use for pedestrians in public areas. In 2004, there were 559 emergency room visits due to distracted walking. Such injuries have increased at an alarming rate since that time and in 2010 1,506 pedestrians were injured as a result of distracted walking.

Not surprisingly, young people are the most likely to be injured by distracted walking. Individuals aged 21-25 accounted for 1,003 of the injuries over the seven years included in Nasar and Troyer’s study making up the largest single group of injured, distracted pedestrians. The 16-20 year old group accounted for 985 emergency room visits, making them a close second for most injured age group in the study.

These troubling statistics speak for themselves; smartphones and walking can be a dangerous combination. Smartphones have made our lives fuller in many respects but, like another lesson learned in grade school, there is a “time and place” for them and that place is not on our sidewalks.

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