We’ve talked about drunk, drowsy, distracted, and deadly drivers in the past, but how about “distracted walkers?”  The American College of Emergency Physicians issued a warning several months ago after gathering information from across the United States about the increasing number of patients that are treated in emergency rooms after being injured in pedestrian accidents while using their cellphones to text or talk.  And worse, just this week, a 14-year old boy in Florida was killed when he stepped in front of an oncoming car that he did not see because he was texting on his cellphone.  This follows pedestrian deaths in New York and Illinois that have prompted two state lawmakers to submit bills banning texting while walking in their states.

The thought of such legislation is sure to be the source of late-night jokes, but this is a serious matter.  Several states have already banned the use of cell phones while driving in school zones, and texting while driving has been shown to be as deadly as drinking while driving.  There’s just no way one can pay attention while typing and walking or driving.  As a public relations ploy last March, (which lasted only twenty-four hours), a busy street in London was pictured with lampposts covered with rugby goalposts cushions.  This was in an area that is known for heavy digital gadget users.  This gimmick showed that persons walked into lampposts, trash containers, telephone poles, and even walls while focusing their attention on their mobile gadgets.  Most injuries are superficial; however, there have been many deaths caused by either inattention of walkers, or drivers that have hit pedestrians who were either jaywalking or stepping off a curb while texting or talking on their phone.

If bicyclists, rollerbladers, pedestrians, and skateboarders could wait to use their electronic devices after they are finished with their activities, they will have a better chance to stay in one piece.  If they receive a message, they should wait until they stop to check it out.  It is the misuse of these expensive gadgets that is getting us in trouble – both behind the wheel and now on our own two feet.  It’s been proven that multitasking leads to less efficient production than focusing on one job at a time.  True, it’s hard to believe we ever got along without cell phones because of the convenience they afford.  But trying to communicate at a time we should be thinking about where we are going, and how we are getting there, is a risk we shouldn’t be willing to take.  Better to send or retrieve that message when you reach your destination safely than while you are waiting to be seen in an emergency room.

More than 1,000 pedestrians required emergency room visits in 2008 because they were distracted and tripped, fell, or ran into something while using a cellphone to text or talk.  The number of accidents is probably much higher than that, because many of the injuries are not severe enough to need a visit to the hospital.  Ira Hyman, a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, recently conducted a study on this subject.  He noted that many times pedestrians using their phones don’t even notice objects or people right in front of them.  He says the term commonly applied to such preoccupation is “inattention blindness”, which means a person can be looking at an object but fail to process what it is.  He proved this when he and his students had one of the students dress as a clown and ride a unicycle around a central square on campus.  Twenty-five percent of people talking on a cellphone at the time did not even see the clown.

Hopefully, this will serve as a reminder to walk with care, just as you drive.  Teach your kids that safety should always come first.  It may be cool to walk around with an iPod, or phone, but tell them to get in the habit of thinking about the trouble these devices can cause by simply not paying attention.  This applies to folks of all ages; you could trip over your cat in your own home while you are talking on the phone.  Stay focused on the task at hand, and you will stay safe!