While distracted driving has commanded lots of attention (albeit not a commensurate amount of correction), another digital hazard — distracted walking — is on the rise, with sometimes disastrous consequences.
We’ve all seen it, and often felt it, as people looking down to text, tweet, read or play games on their smartphones crash into us, typically as we walk in a straight line and they don’t. A study by Eric M. Lamberg and Lisa M. Muratori at Stony Brook University found that distracted walkers veer off course by as much as 61 percent while texting and walking.
When about to collide with a distracted walker, I used to politely say, “Excuse me,” to get the person’s attention. But I’ve become so annoyed by this behavior that I now harshly proclaim, “Watch where you’re going!” My friends of a certain age are frankly scared that they will be knocked down and injured by a distracted walker.
Distracted walking is most common among millennials aged 18 to 34, but women 55 and older are most likely to suffer serious injuries, including broken bones, according to a 2013 study in Accident Analysis & Prevention. Visits to emergency rooms for injuries involving distracted pedestrians on cellphones more than doubled between 2004 and 2010 and continues to grow. Among more than 1,000 people hospitalized after texting while walking, injuries included a shattered pelvis and injuries to the back, head and neck.
According to the National Safety Council, “the rise in cellphone-distracted walking injuries parallels the eightfold increase in cellphone use in the last 15 years.” Although the council found that 52 percent of distracted walking episodes occurred at home, the nationwide uptick in pedestrian deaths resulting from texting while walking has prompted the federal government to offer grants of $2 million to cities to combat distracted walking.
Accidents among digitally distracted walkers can be as serious as being hit by a vehicle, falling down a flight of stairs, tripping over a curb, walking into a glass door or falling into a fountain or swimming pool. A Brooklyn acquaintance tripped, fell and fractured her ankle, not while talking on her cellphone but when she looked down to put the phone away. And a walking and texting woman in South Bend, Ind., fell off a pier into six feet of cold Lake Michigan water. Although embarrassed by the accident, the woman, who was rescued by a 19-year-old, said she hoped “it would make people understand that texting while walking can be a problem.”
Alas, most people seem to think the problem involves other people. They’re not the ones who walk distracted. A new survey of some 6,000 people released last week by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, found that while 74 percent said that “other people” were usually or always walking while distracted, only 29 percent said the same about themselves. And only 46 percent considered the behavior “dangerous.”
Seventy percent of millennials surveyed said they thought distracted walking was a serious issue, compared with 81 percent of those 35 and older. Half the millennials said they considered distracted walking “embarrassing — in a funny way,” which suggests they don’t really think it’s all that serious.
The survey, conducted for the academy by Ipsos Public Affairs in October, found that among residents in eight major cities, New Yorkers were most likely to consider distracted walking a serious issue (86 percent), but they were also more likely to walk while distracted than those in the seven other cities.
“I see a lot of folks who were injured when they tripped on a curb, walked into a pothole or were hit by a car they didn’t see, though they rarely admit they were distracted by their phones,” said Dr.Claudette M. Lajam, an orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Medical Center and the Hospital for Joint Diseases. “Yet you know many were because when they’re in my office and should be interacting with me, all they’re doing is looking at their phones or answering a call.”
Her advice: “Look where you’re walking. Look in front of you, not down at your phone.” Peripheral vision can drop to 10 percent of normal when a person is texting or talking on a phone while walking.
Despite the widespread belief, especially among younger people, that multitasking is both possible and safe, Dr. Lajam echoed the warning issued by a number of experts that “you can’t really pay attention to more than one thing at a time.” That, the experts say, is how the human brain evolved, and to think otherwise is a recipe for disaster.
Teenagers, however, rarely see it as a problem. Multitasking is central to their world. They talk, text and listen to music all at the same time. Even if not using a smartphone, my 15-year-old grandsons think they can stay tuned to music on noise-blocking headphones, watch for traffic and cross the street at the same time. What, I wonder, might happen if they intersect with a distracted driver?
The orthopedic surgeons academy, which has joined other safety conscious organizations with a public service announcement called “Digital Deadwalkers,” noted that the busy holiday season is prime time for distracted walking incidents. To help pedestrians stay injury free while afoot, it suggests:
■ When using headphones, keep the volume low enough to be able to hear surrounding traffic.
■ Stay focused on the people, objects and obstacles in front of and around you. Window shoppers are especially prone to pedestrian collisions.
■ Don’t jaywalk. Use crosswalks, and obey traffic signals. Be especially aware of bicycles coming your way.
■ Look ahead of you, not down, when stepping on or off a curb or approaching stairs or escalators.
■ Stay alert to vehicles pulling in or out of parking lots, especially in winter months when it gets dark early (to which I would add, wear reflective or at least light-colored outer clothing so drivers and cyclists can see you better).
■ If you find it necessary to make or take a call or send a text while walking, stop, step out of the flow of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and resume walking only when the task is completed.
My addendum to subway riders: Don’t stop at the top, bottom or in the middle of a stairway to take or make a text or call lest a fellow passenger trip over you.