Cell phone use increasingly the cause of injury to pedestrians

Posted on June 16, 2010


If there were a poster child for pedestrian cell-phone hazards, Paige Odebralski might just be it. In January, the Riverside teen was so absorbed in a phone conversation after school that she tripped on a dirt path, fell down and scraped her knee. A few months later, she was jogging on a busy street when she got a text message from a friend. Odebralski was typing her response when, BAM!, she ran head-first into a metal pole.

I bent over and was shaking my head like, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’ People drove by and were pointing and laughing,” the 15-year-old remembered.

Other than the obvious damage to her ego, the Poly High School sophomore was unhurt. Odebralksi said she is more aware of her surroundings when using the phone now and never texts while jogging. Her experience was embarrassing to be sure, but hardly rare.

Hospitals nationwide have noted an increase in such mishaps, according to the American College of Emergency Physicians. Riverside Medical Clinic’s urgent care manager, Mike Lang, said he’s seen an uptick in cases in the past couple of years, primarily minor bumps and bruises from tripping and running into things. But one 60-something woman fell off a curb while trying to text and broke her wrist, he said. Most of the patients Lang sees are young, probably because they use cell phones more, he said. But they’re also better at it.

   “I saw one texting while riding a bicycle, and I saw a kid flying on a skateboard and texting. He maybe only glanced down every 45 seconds, though,” Lang said.

But researchers studying the level of distraction by mobile phone users warn that the habit is not only dangerous, but deadly.

“When you are in a cell phone conversation, you really are less aware of the world around you,” said Ira Hyman, a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash. “In an environment where there are streets and cars … it gets really risky.”

Though statistics on deadly accidents aren’t available, anecdotal evidence in news reports is plentiful.

In 2008, a 39-year-old woman walking and talking on her cell phone was struck and killed by a train in Alabama. That same year, a young woman in San Francisco stepped off a curb while on her cell phone and was hit by a pickup and died.

More commonly, researchers said, the mishaps involve bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes, like the widely covered story of the texting teen in New York who fell 4 feet down an uncovered          manhole last year, scraping her back and losing a shoe.

“I think people think that it hasn’t happened to them so it’s not going to happen,” Odebralski said.

The number of cell phone-related accidents that drove users to emergency rooms almost doubled between 2006 and 2007, and again between 2007 and 2008, with more than 1,000 injuries, according to research at Ohio State University. The problems included talkers and texters walking into objects, tripping, and stepping into the paths of trains and vehicles.

“We found pedestrians talking on cell phones, like drivers, were less aware of their surroundings, and they were more likely to walk into oncoming traffic,” said Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning who conducted the study.

“It could have to do with more people using cell phones, the increase of texting or younger people,” he said. “When we compared it to traffic accidents where people were in ER, the rate of increase was greater for pedestrians.”

Nasar’s group used emergency room records gathered by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. He suspects many more cases go unreported because the injuries are minor or people are too embarrassed to admit what happened.

Such was the case with a 44-year-old Riverside man who walked into a street-level fountain near the downtown Mission Inn while texting a friend his order from Kentucky Fried Chicken. The man, who refused to give his name, was wet to his knees but avoided serious injury.

Hyman, the Washington college professor, and his students observed people crossing the university’s central square and grouped them by cell phone or MP3 users, those walking alone with no electronics and those walking in pairs and talking. Those with cell phones were the worst, he said.

“They walk more slowly, they weave more, they changed directions more frequently and they are the least likely to acknowledge people around them. They seemed to be unaware of the world around them,” he said.

Taking it one step further, one of Hyman’s students dressed up as a clown and rode a unicycle in the same square for an hour.

Three-fourths of the conversing pairs noticed the clown, as did more than half of the MP3 users and solitary walkers. Only one-fourth of the cell-phone users noticed the clown, said Hyman, whose study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

“That’s what I find most disturbing about the work,” he said. “A conversation with someone next to you is not nearly as distracting as a conversation on a cell phone.”

The failure to see something obvious while engaged in another activity is known as “inattentional blindness,” he said.

In that vein, Cal State San Bernardino math professor Corey Dunn has spent the past six months conducting an unofficial experiment to see just how tuned out cell phone users are. He intentionally places himself in their path while walking to and from his car on campus.

Out of about 200 people observed, he classifies three-fourths of them as “oblivious,” who only notice him once he’s in their personal space. The remainder is almost equally divided between “sentient,” those who can walk and talk without incident, and “catatonic,” those who wait for Dunn to walk around them.

“I sort of consider the amount of attention devoted to the texting activity to be of evolutional importance. Those that aren’t paying attention to what they’re doing stand a higher chance of weeding themselves out of the evolutionary cycle,” he said.


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