EMERGENCIES
July 4, 2013

If The Three Stooges Had Cell Phones

A pedestrian walks into a lamppost. Drivers distracted by cell phones aren't the only ones in the ER.

Some of the incidents would seem sort of funny, if so many others weren't tragic. Distracted pedestrians on their cell phones are walking into lampposts, falling off bridges, getting hit by cars.

Cell phone use doesn't only make driving more dangerous. It is also a hazard for people just out for a walk.

Back when life was simpler, a multitasking pedestrian was someone who chewed gum and maybe talked to a friend as they walked their dogs. Nowadays, electronic devices tempt us to do other things while we walk, but our ability to do them well and still walk is extremely limited. And the number one temptation is the cell phone.

Younger people were the most likely to be hurt while walking and using a cell phone, with injuries highest in the 21-25 year old age group followed by 16-20-year-olds.

The number of pedestrian injuries linked to cell phones began to spike in 2008 according to an Ohio State University study that look at a federal database of emergency room visits from 2004 to 2010. From a few hundred pedestrian accidents a year before 2008, the number rose to 1,055 in 2008, 1,113 in 2009 and 1,506 in 2010. The 1506 injured pedestrians in 2010 exceeded the number of known injuries of drivers using cell phones.

Younger people were the most likely to be hurt while walking and using a cell phone, with injuries highest in the 21-25 year old age group followed by 16-20-year-olds. And men were slightly more likely (53%) than women to be injured.

This preliminary research doesn't break injuries down by seriousness (many were minor) and can't prove that cell phones were the cause of the injuries. The increase could simply be due to people who are spending more time on their cell phone. But the cell phone as cause is consistent with other studies that show there's a price to be paid when people multitask.

A 2009 study (using virtual reality for the children's safety) found that children were dangerously distracted by cell phones when crossing the street. And while adults would like to think that they can handle this type of distraction better than children, most studies of multitasking do not bear this out.

A study of Seattle pedestrians published earlier this year found that multitaskers crossing busy intersections took longer to cross and made more dangerous crossings than the average pedestrian. And a Stanford University study on multitasking found that people who were heavy cell phone users were easily distracted and tended to focus on the wrong task at the wrong time.

So is it really a surprise that people on cell phones are walking into things and worse, the number of pedestrians injured while using their cell phones is rising?

The world has a way of sneaking up on you when you're moving around while talking on the phone. Even the lamp posts can move surprisingly quickly. It's much safer just to stop walking for a minute or two until the conversation is over.

An article on the study appears in the August 2013 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention.

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