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Distracted pedestrians stumble into danger
Alarming stats » The problem may not be as bad as distracted driving, but the danger is real.


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Though overall traffic deaths were lower in 2010 than the year before, pedestrian fatalities rose by 4.2 percent and injuries by 19 percent, according to the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s not clear how many of the pedestrian deaths and injuries involved cellphones and other electronics because police often don’t collect that information.

Even without better data, the Internet yields a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the power of electronics to distract pedestrians.

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A woman texting while she walked through in a suburban Philadelphia shopping mall this year tumbled into a large fountain directly in front of her. Security camera video of the incident went viral, generating millions of hits.

A man texting a message to his boss nearly strolled into the path of a black bear that had wandered into a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood. He was only a few feet away when he looked up, saw the bear, and ran. A KTLA news helicopter tracking the bear recorded the April incident.

Researchers say they’re not surprised that multi-tasking pedestrians run into trouble.

Psychological studies that show most people can’t focus on two things at once. Rather, their attention shifts rapidly back and forth between tasks, and performance suffers. But like a lot of drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel, pedestrians often think they’re in control and that it’s all the other fools on their phones who aren’t watching what they’re doing.

"I see students as soon as they break from a class, they have their cellphones out and they’re texting to one another. They’re walking through the door and bumping into one another," said Jack Nasar, an Ohio State University professor and expert on environmental psychology. "People think they can do it, that they are somehow better."

A study Nasar conducted at intersections on campus found that people talking on cellphones were significantly more likely to walk in front of cars than pedestrians not using phones.

A study by researchers at Stony Brook University in New York compared the performance of people asked to walk across a room to a target — a piece of paper taped to the floor — without distractions and then again next day while talking on a cellphone or texting. The group that talked on the cellphone walked slightly slower and veered off course a bit more than previously, but the texting group walked slower, veered off course 61 percent more and overshot the target 13 percent more.

"People really need to be aware that they are impacting their safety by texting or talking on the cellphone" while walking, Eric Lamberg, an associate physical therapy professor who conducted the study, said. "I think the risk is there."


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