PUBLIC HEALTH
January 15, 2013

Distracted in Seattle

The number of pedestrians crossing major intersections while talking or texting is huge. It's what they don't see that counts.

Nearly a third of Seattle pedestrians crossing busy intersections are multitasking as they make their way through traffic, according to a recent study.

This is hardly news to all the people who are texting, talking on their phone or struggling with their dog while crossing. What is likely to be surprising is how distracted this multitasking is making them and the danger it creates when crossing the street.

Texting also made people four times more likely to violate good crossing behavior: crossing against the light, crossing in the middle of the street or failing look both ways before crossing.

The study looked at pedestrians crossing at 20 of Seattle's highest risk intersections during 2012. Each intersection had on average more than three lanes of traffic. Observations were made at different times of day, with nearly half done during the morning rush hour (8 to 9 am). Of the 1102 pedestrians observed, nearly a third of them (29.8%) were doing something distracting while crossing.

Distractions ranged from text messaging to dealing with children. But the vast majority came from three sources: listening to music (11%), texting (7%) and talking on the phone (6%).

Texting was by far the most distracting of these preoccupations, causing people to add about two extra seconds to the normal ten-second crossing time. Texting also made people four times more likely to violate good crossing behavior: crossing against the light, crossing in the middle of the street or failing to look both ways before crossing.

All the different types of distractions seen in the study caused people to cross less safely. And all but listening to music slowed people down. Listening to music actually sped up crossings by about half a second. But music aficionados were considerably less likely to look both ways before crossing.

With more and more people using more and more mobile devices, the problem seems certain to grow. There are already 60,000 injuries and 4,000 deaths from vehicle/pedestrian crashes every year nationwide. And while the Seattle study didn't look at crashes or injuries, its authors believe the connection is inevitable and steps should be taken to reduce them. They suggest the need for a change in attitude about distracted pedestrians, similar to the one that's occurred towards drunk drivers.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already ban texting while driving for all drivers. Could similar laws be enacted for pedestrians? Only time will tell.

The study was done in Seattle, but distracted pedestrian are found in every city where cell phones proliferate – in other words, pretty much everywhere. People who frequently multitask while crossing busy intersections might want to at least try crossing without the distractions just to see what they've been missing.

The study was published in Injury Prevention.

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