Cell phone distraction: It’s not just for drivers anymore

By Mary Ebeling

We’ve all seen it, the zombie-like pedestrian apparently blinded by their cell phone while using it for a conversation or texting. While incidents of distracted driving crashes involving cell phones are down, pedestrian injuries due to cell phone distraction while walking—primarily involving talking while walking—are up . What can be done to turn this trend around?

Recent research out of Ohio State examines the trends in pedestrian injuries related to cell phone use. Between 2004 and 2010 pedestrian-reported injuries related to cell phone use skyrocketed, rising from 256 to 1,506. Young people ages 16–25 suffer more injuries related to distracted cell phone use. This appears logical given that a greater percentage of young people own cell phones and live in urbanized areas where walking is a prevalent mode of travel. Consumer Reports has entered the conversation, administering a survey on the dangers of walking and cell phone use. Respondents reported witnessing cell phone users walking into stationary objects, and in front of a moving bicycle or motor vehicle. These studies highlight what is becoming increasingly clear: people don’t do a good job of multitasking with cell phone technology.

The possible fixes being offered are deceptively simple and mostly involve changing the culture that has grown up around cell phones. Since younger adults and teenagers are more likely to walk and talk on their phones, programs for teens have been developed that remind this demographic of the basics of traffic safety, crossing streets, etc., and offer ideas for marketing safe walking habits for people using cell phones. The Ohio State study author, as well as other medical professionals suggest the radical option of stepping to the side and finishing a call or a text, much like drivers who pull over if taking a call or sending a text. Sidewalk textures may be altered and new technology may eventually include features that lock functions of a phone while walking or driving.

Philadelphia even had a little fun last year by installing an “E-lane” for distracted walkers on April 1.

Ways to address the dangers of walking and talking on a cell phone might be simple, but the real challenge is resisting the urge to multitask on a cell phone while walking in an urban environment.

Mary Ebeling is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.