This year, according to the United States' Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian deaths in the U.S. rose for the first time in four years. While there could be a number of reasons for that increase, one likely culprit is mobile technology - or, more accurately, pedestrians' reluctance to disengage from their mobile devices when crossing the street. New research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) lends weight to this argument and show that it's not just texting and talking that can get you into trouble when you step out onto the road.
Dr. David Schwebel, director of UAB's Youth Safety Laboratory, set up a three-video-screen audio-visual testing facility in his lab. Over 125 students took place in the test, which involved their using the screens to check left, right and forward for vehicles on a virtual two-lane street, then proceeding to walk across when they felt it was safe. The animated cars were traveling at a simulated 30 mph (48 km/h).
The students performed the test without distractions, while texting, while chatting on a mobile phone, and while listening to music with earphones. It turned out that 6 percent of non-distracted subjects got hit by vehicles, while that number doubled to 12 percent for subjects talking on the phone. That number more than doubled again, to 25 percent, for those people who were texting.
When it came to students listening to music, however, the vehicle-strike rate went up to one in three. "The big thing with music is that your ears are distracted. You are listening to the music - and not listening to the traffic," said Schwebel. "I suspect that we use our ears quite a bit more than we realize to safely cross the street."
It should be noted that the virtual street setup didn't allow pedestrians to vary the speed at which they crossed the road, nor did it slow vehicles down when pedestrians were crossing. However, Schwebel points out that in a real-world scenario where pedestrians and drivers are distracted, both of these scenarios can and do occur.
His advice: turn off your devices when crossing the street.
"We are going to continue to see distracted pedestrians and distracted drivers, and it is going to influence our safety on the roads," he said. "And it is not going to be in a good way."