Cellphone Distractions: Pedestrian Injuries Rise

girl sending a text message on her cellphone
Think you can text and walk at the same time? The result could land you in the ER, as research suggests pedestrian injuries related to cellphone use are on the rise. (Image credit: Supri Suharjoto | Shutterstock)

Can you rub your belly while patting your head? How about walking while talking on your cellphone? Turns out, the latter may be trickier than expected, as "distracted walking" injuries have increased in recent years, a new national study finds.

The two study researchers found an estimated 1,500 people were treated in the ER for injuries related to cellphone use while walking in 2010. That's more than double the 256 such injuries reported in 2005 and the 559 such injuries reported in 2004.

"If current trends continue, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cellphones doubles again between 2010 and 2015," study researcher Jack Nasar, professor of city and regional planning at The Ohio State University, said in a statement.

Nasar thinks these numbers, detailed in the August 2013 issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, underestimate the actual pedestrian injuries linked to mobile phone use, as not everyone who gets hurt will seek attention at the ER and even if they did, they may not report that they were using a cellphone at the time. [The 10 Most Disruptive Technologies]

Walking and talking

Nasar and his colleague Derek Troyer of the Ohio Department of Transportation analyzed seven years of data on injury reports (2004 to 2010) from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which samples reports from 100 U.S. hospitals.

They found that most of the phone-related injuries, or 69 percent, were linked to pedestrians talking on their phones, while 9 percent were linked to texting. The remaining cellphone-related injuries were due to a combination of reaching for the phone, e-mailing, unknown and "other."

The injuries ranged from serious, such as concussions and fractures, to less serious, such as lacerations, sprains and abrasions, though the researchers didn't estimate which types of injuries were most common.

Some examples from the study include a 23-year-old man who suffered a hip contusion after being struck by a car while walking on a road and talking on his phone; another young man, 28, lacerated his brow after walking into a pole while talking on the phone; and a teen boy, 14, suffered a chest wall contusion after he fell 6 to 8 feet (about 2 meters) off a bridge and into a ditch while walking down a road while on a cellphone.

Distracted walking hit younger adults the hardest, with 1,003 such injuries reported in the 21- to 25-year-old group between 2004 and 2010, with 16- to 20-year-olds accounting for 985 distracted walking injuries during that period.

Wandering mind

The injuries seem to be the result of a person's attention being distracted from the task at hand rather than a physical deficit, studies suggest. In fact, past studies have shown that pedestrians have less situational awareness — being less likely to notice a clown on a unicycle or other passersby and walking more slowly — than those not on phones.

Why would a cellphone chat be any more distracting than a walk-and-talk with a real-life person? The answer may have to do with the fact that when both conversers are in the same environment they can react (and adjust the conversation) if a danger pops up, Nasar told LiveScience.

In general, humans are not great multitaskers, research has shown. "People really cannot multitask," Nasar wrote in an email. "Tracking of brain activity shows that while it may feel like multitasking, people are rapidly moving back and forth from one task to another, they are paying less attention to any one, and getting stressed more."

And so the takeaway, Nasar said, is that people should not talk or text on their cellphones when they are involved with another activity. As for kids, "parents should teach their children (as they do when they say look both ways before crossing) to practice safe texting," Nasar wrote.

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Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.