- Associated Press - Monday, July 30, 2012

WASHINGTON — A young man talking on a cellphone meanders along the edge of a lonely train platform at night. Suddenly he stumbles, loses his balance and pitches over the side, landing head first on the tracks.

Fortunately there were no trains approaching the Philadelphia-area station at that moment, because it took the man several minutes to recover enough to climb out of danger. But the incident, captured last year by a security camera and provided to the Associated Press, underscores the risks of what government officials and safety experts say is a growing problem: distracted walking.

On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem isn’t as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.

Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.

“We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn’t have the data,” said Jonathan Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.

State and local officials are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves.

In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks at busy intersections urging pedestrians to “Look up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you.”

Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they’re going. “One of the messages will certainly be ‘pick your head up’ — I want to say ‘nitwit,’ but I probably shouldn’t call them names,” said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation and public utilities.

As an April Fool’s Day joke with a serious message, Philadelphia officials taped off an “e-lane” for distracted pedestrians on a sidewalk outside downtown office buildings.

Some didn’t get that it was a joke.

“The sad part is we had people who, once they realized we were going to take the e-lane away, got mad because they thought it was really helpful to not have people get in their way while they were walking and texting,” Cutler said.

When the Utah Transit Authority adopted an ordinance barring pedestrians from using cellphones, headphones or other distracting electronic devices while crossing the tracks of its light rail system on the streets of Salt Lake City, subject to a $50 fine, the Legislature refused to make it a statewide law.

“Look, I get distracted all the time,” bristled Utah State Rep. Craig Frank, a Republican who opposed the proposal. “I have a smartphone, too. Walking on sidewalks, in stores and malls, and maybe in a crosswalk sometimes I’m using my cellphone. But I try to stay connected to my environment. I never thought the government needed to cite me for using my cellphone in a reasonable manner.”

Distracted walking bills in the Arkansas, Illinois and New York legislatures also went nowhere.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which provided the video of the man who fell onto the train tracks, has received reports from bus drivers and train engineers who say they nearly hit pedestrians who didn’t appear to hear them sound their horns because they were distracted by their electronic devices, said Jim Fox, the agency’s director of system safety and risk management.

He said there have been several cases of people hit and killed by the authority’s trains in which it appears they were wearing headphones or using cellphones while trespassing on tracks.

A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident.

“With the smartphone technology these days and everything at your fingertips, it’s almost getting to be an obsession or a compulsion with people,” Fox said. “You see it in airports or train stations or malls — if there’s any kind of downtime, they’re jumping right to that phone.”

About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. But that’s likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission’s data systems.

The cases include a 24-year-old woman who walked into a telephone pole while texting; a 28-year-old man who was walking along a road when he fell into a ditch while talking on a cellphone; a 12-year-old boy who was looking at a video game when he was clipped by a pickup truck as he crossed the street; and a 53-year-old woman who fell off a curb while texting and lacerated her face.

One 67-year-old man walking along the side of a road was hit a by a bicyclist who was talking on a cellphone as he rode. The pedestrian injured a knee.

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.

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.”