Walking, Chewing Gum

Morgan O'Rourke


March 1, 2014

A common complaint of those of us old enough to remember a time when cellphones didn’t exist is that “kids today” always seem to have their faces buried in their devices and are barely aware of what goes on around them. A unicorn could magically appear, handing out thousand-dollar bills and delicious ice cream cones, and they would be too preoccupied with all their texting, YouTube browsing and video game playing to even notice. I mean, they’re even liable to wander right onto my lawn, no matter how many times I tell them to stay off of it.

Of course, while we shake our collective adult fists at these punk kids, we conveniently forget that it is only in the past few years that states had to start outlawing texting while driving because “responsible” adults couldn’t figure out for themselves that typing a text while operating a few tons of car was ridiculously dangerous behavior. So when it comes to being distracted by technology, we’re all guilty in our own ways. Just walk around any town with a decent amount of pedestrian traffic and you’re sure to see oblivious, headphone-wearing, smartphone-toting zombies step into traffic and come this close to becoming a hood ornament. It’s happened to me once or twice and I definitely deserved the expletives, finger gestures and helpful suggestions of where I should go and what I should do when I get there that those New York cabbies were so kind to share with me.

A recent survey in the online scientific journal PLOS ONE found that texting while walking isn’t just distracting, it actually affects you physiologically by compromising gait, balance and body movements. Researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland made subjects walk in a straight line for about 28 feet while texting and reading texts. These individuals walked more slowly and stiffly and deviated from a straight line more than subjects without a phone. The study did not indicate whether or not they were chewing gum at the same time, but one must assume this would have only added to the challenge.

Kidding aside, this behavior can have serious consequences. A 2012 University of Washington study found that texting pedestrians were 3.9 times more likely to disregard common safety guidelines, like obeying walk signals or looking both ways before crossing the street.

Last year, an Ohio State University study analyzed data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database of patient information collected from hospitals around the country on injuries associated with consumer products. In 2010, more than 1,500 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for injuries sustained while walking and using a cellphone—almost six times more people than were treated for such injuries in 2005, the researchers found. And if we apply lessons learned from distracted driving trends—where the actual number of cellphone-related crash injuries could be up to 1,300 times higher than CPSC estimates—these numbers may actually be too low.
Such findings have led some lawmakers to try to ban texting while walking altogether. In 2012, Fort Lee, N.J., began issuing $85 fines to pedestrians caught texting while crossing the street. A similar bill was proposed last year in Nevada.

Japanese mobile carrier Docomo has also taken steps to protect people from themselves. The company offers an optional “safety mode” for Android users that senses when a person is using their device while walking. The feature then warns users with a pop-up message that what they are doing is dangerous. It will even shut down the phone if they don’t stop.

Unfortunately, if we solve the texting while walking problem, we still won’t be entirely in the clear. Simply wearing headphones has also proven distracting. Researchers at the University of Maryland Medical Center found that injuries to headphone-wearing pedestrians tripled from 2004 to 2011. Seventy percent of these injuries were fatal and, in nearly a third of cases, vehicle drivers reported sounding a horn or warning signal before the accident.

The vast majority of distracted walking accidents are entirely preventable with a little personal risk management and basic common sense. Lawmakers and manufacturers can only do so much. Sometimes it is our responsibility to pick our heads up, disconnect from our devices and be an active part of the world around us in order to prevent a tragedy.

Besides, you really never know when a generous unicorn might be headed your way.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)