Like zombies, they walk among us, texting, checking emails, talking, selecting music — and, according to a study published last week, oblivious to cars, trucks, lights, crosswalks and the concentration required to get through urban intersections alive.
Sometimes, we’re the unwitting risk-takers, believing that while those other people can’t do two things at once, we can. Think again.
Researchers, observing pedestrians in Seattle, found that nearly one in three people crossing the street at high-risk intersections was distracted by use of a mobile device. Only one in four followed the full safety routine of looking both ways, obeying the lights and crossing at the appropriate point, the study found.
Texting was particularly dangerous, said Dr. Beth Ebel, study co-author and director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center of the University of Washington.
Texters were four times less likely to look before crossing, obey lights or cross at the appropriate place.
They also spent more time in the intersection, by nearly 2 seconds, on average.
For the study, published online in the journal Injury Prevention, observers watched 1,102 Seattle pedestrians at 20 high-risk intersections during randomly assigned times.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said more than 1,100 people wound up in hospitals or emergency rooms last year as a result of injuries that occurred while they were using a mobile device while walking — likely an undercount, experts said, as patients are reluctant to volunteer the information.
Washington and many other states have banned texting or talking on a handheld phone while driving, and some jurisdictions have tried to tackle mobile-device use by pedestrians by broadening jaywalking laws.
“We all see the problem,” Ebel said. “And yet, many of us contribute to this problem. I think the place to start with this is with ourselves. When you’re texting, you’re really not looking. You’re drawn into the world of the answer you’re sending back to somebody, and you’re simply not paying attention.”
Ebel, a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s, said she is concerned about the conditioning of children, many of whom now have cellphones from an early age. She recalled the famous Pavlovian conditioning, where dogs learned to associate a snack with the ringing of a bell.
“The cellphone is exactly like that. We get a bell, and we get a response. … This means we are being conditioned.” Human interaction is our “treat,” and like dogs or hamsters, we do what it takes to get it.
As a parent, she believes it is incumbent on parents to start early to talk about the dangers of distraction, both while walking and while driving — or while doing other activities.
“I’ve seen people texting while horseback riding,” she said. “When I see this kind of activity, it doesn’t bear well for the future.”