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Thursday, December 13, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.
Dangerous distraction: Study finds many texting pedestrians
By Carol M. Ostrom
Seattle Times health reporter
Like zombies, they walk among us, texting, checking emails, talking, selecting music — and, according to a study published Wednesday, oblivious to cars, trucks, lights, crosswalks and the concentration required to get through urban intersections alive.
Sometimes, we're the unwitting risk-takers, believing that while those other people can't do two things at once, we can.
Researchers, observing pedestrians in Seattle, found that nearly one in three people crossing the street at high-risk intersections was distracted by use of a mobile device.
Only one in four followed the full safety routine of looking both ways, obeying the lights, and crossing at the appropriate point, the study found.
Texting was particularly dangerous, said Dr. Beth Ebel, study co-author and director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center of the University of Washington.
Texters were four times less likely to look before crossing, obey lights or cross at the appropriate place.
They also spent more time in the intersection, by nearly 2 seconds, on average.
For the study, published online in the journal Injury Prevention, observers watched 1,102 Seattle pedestrians at 20 high-risk intersections during randomly assigned times.
Ebel said distraction in general — and texting in particular — is associated with risk for pedestrians. Vehicle-pedestrian accidents injure 60,000 and kill 4,000 people every year in this country, she said.
In 2010, there were 529 pedestrian-involved collisions in Seattle, with at least 252 involving some injury. Fifty were serious injuries and six were fatal, according to a Seattle Department of Transportation study, which did not specify mobile-device use.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said more than 1,100 people wound up in hospitals or emergency rooms last year as a result of injuries that occurred while they were using a mobile device while walking — likely an undercount, experts said, as patients are reluctant to volunteer the information.
Washington and many other states have banned texting or talking on a handheld phone while driving, and some jurisdictions have tried to tackle mobile-device use by pedestrians by broadening jaywalking laws.
"We all see the problem," Ebel said in an interview. "And yet, many of us contribute to this problem. I think the place to start with this is with ourselves. When you're texting, you're really not looking. ... You're drawn into the world of the answer you're sending back to somebody, and you're simply not paying attention."
Starts early in life
Ebel, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's, said she is concerned about the conditioning of children, many of whom now have cellphones from an early age. She recalled the famous Pavlovian conditioning, where dogs learned to associate a snack with the ringing of a bell.
"The cellphone is exactly like that. We get a bell, and we get a response. ... This means we are being conditioned." Human interaction is our "treat," and like dogs or hamsters, we do what it takes to get it.
As a parent, she believes it is incumbent on parents to start early to talk about the dangers of distraction, both while walking and while driving — or while doing other activities.
"I've seen people texting while horseback riding," she said. "When I see this kind of activity, it doesn't bear well for the future."
About half of the observations for the study were made in the morning rush hour between 8 and 9 a.m., and just over half of the pedestrians observed were between 25 and 44. Researchers chose the 20 intersections with the highest number of pedestrian injuries during the past three years.
Because the researchers recorded demographic and specific information about the "distracting activity" of the pedestrians, they were able to look at separate mobile-device behavior.
For example: Those listening to music actually speeded up while crossing the road, although they were less likely to look both ways before doing so.
People distracted by pets or children were almost three times as likely to skip looking both ways.
Nearly 80 percent of the pedestrians observed were walking alone, and the large majority obeyed the lights and crossed at the crosswalk.
Most of those distracted by mobile devices were listening to music (about 11 percent), with more than 7 percent texting and more than 6 percent talking or listening on a handheld phone.
Female pedestrians, whether distracted or not, were somewhat less likely to look both ways while crossing the street.
"This isn't rocket science," Ebel said. "To be completely honest, many of us do it ourselves. I do not, because I've seen enough of this. But I guess I challenge us all to think what we can do."
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @costrom.
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