With mobile phone users unwilling to change their behaviour and lawmakers uncertain of how to tackle the issue, distracted pedestrians are quickly becoming a new danger on the roads, both to themselves and others. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Grainy black-and-white footage shows a woman walking through a shopping mall in Pennsylvania, US. She passes several kiosks, her nose buried in her cell phone as she types a text. Seconds later, she trips on the edge of a fountain and plunges into the water head first.

In Melbourne, Australia, a man in a grey hoodie saunters on to a station platform, engrossed in his mobile phone conversation. Completely oblivious to his surroundings, he walks right off the platform and tumbles on to the train tracks below. After a few seconds, he stands up, disoriented, and he is unable to lift himself back on to the platform until others arrive to assist him – just before a train thunders past.

Near Dubai’s Clock Tower, a woman stands at a traffic light with her phone pressed firmly to her ear. Unaware that the traffic lights have turned green, she walks right in front of oncoming traffic. Luckily, the alert drivers see her and screech to a halt to let her pass.

Some of these scenes have become instant YouTube sensations, garnering millions of views, while others are so commonplace they’ve simply become a daily source of annoyance. But these scenes can have tragic consequences.

In New Zealand, 19-year-old Cushla Marie Girling was listening to her iPod when she walked into traffic and was struck and killed by a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

Similarly, in New York, Jason King, 21, was listening to his iPod when a reversing truck hit him. He died instantly.

Around the world, the sight of distracted pedestrians has become so prevalent that it’s becoming accepted as the norm. While plenty of research has been done to inform the public about the risks of distracted driving, distracted walking is a 21st-century phenomenon that’s barely been investigated.

With mobile phone users unwilling to change their behaviour and lawmakers uncertain of how to tackle the issue, distracted pedestrians are quickly becoming a new danger on the roads, both to themselves and others.

David Goldberg, the communications director for Transportation for America, an organisation that pushes for transportation safety laws, says that people should take control and chose to ignore their phones while on the move. “Just because people can reach us while we’re walking or driving, we can’t let our phones run the show all the time,” he says.

Playing the clown

Dr Ira Hyman hadn’t intended to study the behaviour of distracted pedestrians, but he stumbled upon an experiment that he had to try out. “We were looking at research on cell phones and driving, which was mostly done in driving simulators,” explains the psychology professor at Western Washington University. “But simulators are awkward to use – they’re not like driving in your own car on roads you’re familiar with.”

The idea for the experiment came to him while he was studying the effects of mobile phone-related distraction in a natural setting, by watching students walking around the university campus. All he needed was an unusual stimulus, and luckily for him, a student named Justin – who happened to ride a unicycle and own a clown suit – volunteered.

“When the world hands you a unicycling clown, you ought to take advantage of it,” Dr Hyman says, laughing.

As Justin rode his unicycle, dressed in a clown suit, around the university square, Dr Hyman and his team monitored students passing by. They found that students walking by themselves all noticed the clown, 75 per cent of people walking in pairs noticed the clown and only 25 per cent of students talking on their phones noticed the clown. Dr Hyman also noticed that distracted pedestrians “behaved erratically and walked poorly”.

“Most people have been walking since they were a year old. It’s far easier than driving a car or riding a bicycle,” he says. “But people talking on their cell phones walk slower, they weave around, they don’t walk in a straight line and they change direction quickly.”

When Dr Hyman’s team later asked the distracted students if they saw anything unusual, many were astonished that they had completely failed to see the unicycling clown.

It’s down to what Dr Hyman calls ‘inattentional blindness’. “A cell phone conversation takes up so much of your cognitive resources that it degrades your awareness of the world around you,” he explains. “You think you’re in touch, but that’s only because you don’t realise what you’re missing.”

A distracted demographic

Away from the relative safety of a university campus, distraction can have devastating consequences on busy streets.

Last year, there were 333 pedestrian accidents on Dubai roads and 46 people died from those accidents. The percentage caused by mobile devices, however, is not available.

Since the start of the year, around 25,000 traffic fines have been issued to pedestrians who cross roads from non-designated areas, a senior police official told Gulf News. People who cross a road from an inappropriate area can be fined Dh200.

SafeKids Worldwide, a US organisation that focuses on children’s safety, reported that in the US, more than 61 child pedestrians are injured every day. While some require hospital treatment, more than 500 are killed each year.

Although accidents can’t always be tied to mobile phone use among the younger generation, a pattern is emerging.

Katherine Collins, president and CEO of SafeKids Worldwide, says, in 2005, 45 per cent of kids aged between 12 and 17 owned mobile phones. However, by 2009, nearly 75 per cent of children owned a mobile phone.

“Between 2005 and 2009, injuries among 16- to 19-year-olds also increased by 25 per cent,” says Collins. “Now, kids using cell phones are getting younger and, as more kids have phones, more accidents are happening.”

Steps towards safety

As distraction proves to be a very real threat to pedestrians of every age, cities around the world have taken action to increase their residents’ safety – some organisations in a more serious manner than others.

On April 1, residents of Philadelphia, US, were introduced to “E-lanes”, a section of the path for pedestrians using mobile devices while walking. Although the concept turned out to be an April Fools’ Day joke from the City Hall, the prank did, however, help to draw attention to the dangers of distracted walking.

In Canada, the Toronto Police Traffic Service has released public service announcements as part of their campaign titled “Heads Up! Distraction Can Be Fatal”. Although distracted walking isn’t illegal in Toronto, police give distracted pedestrians a brochure on pedestrian safety as well as a stern lecture.

“People have to understand that driving is a very cooperative and dynamic environment – you don’t know what the driver’s going to do and the driver doesn’t know what the pedestrian’s going to do,” says Clint Stibbe, constable at the Toronto Police Traffic Service. “There are so many different things going on that you have to be aware of everything.”

Sometimes it’s as easy as stepping out of the flow of pedestrian traffic and stopping to send a text message. “Behaviour change is a difficult thing to do,” says Collins. “But it just takes a few seconds to stop, finish the text and move on.”

Jack L Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University and an expert on environmental psychology, has also studied the effects of distracted walking. “A lot of things can be done in the environment to alert people,” he says. “A sign that tells them to put down their cell phones as they approach a crossing may make people more aware.”

As for Cathy Cruz Marrero, the woman who fell into a fountain while texting, it seems the lessons will last a lifetime. In a tearful TV interview with CBS news, she says, “It’s dangerous, it’s dangerous – I could have been walking into a bus, a car, a ditch, anything.”