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New study highlights mobile device dangers for pedestrians


August 24, 2011

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."

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Wow! This is very interesting! Do doing dangerous things while distracted with something else is bad? You know, the other day, I was operating a table saw while reading this web site on my android phone. Should I stop doing that or should I wait for a study on the subject?

Please forgive my bitter sarcasm...

Anjin Miura

well Anjin, at least you weren\'t wiring a 220 volt circuit and forgot about the ground wire whilst texting

Bill Bennett

People mentally switch off anyway - when crossing the street with the lights...

They almost all assume that just because they have the walk signal - that you walk and that\'s it; almost NONE OF THEM EVER - take a few side looks - just in case a late runner or a speeding driver or someone asleep at the wheel or is on the run from the cops or is just drunk, or has brake failure etc., - is still barreling along - about to come through the intersection - red light or not - and run them over and kill them...

Almost NONE of them ever check the traffic before stepping off the kerb - in the first place - add in a chronic diversion like the phone / audio / texting - those results do not surprise me at all - in fact I am surprised that are not worse.

I am not an advocate for taking drugs - but plugging your head into music or alternatives to reality - are so effective at taking you out of the present,that absolutely cannot participate in an important conversation on the phone with a TV or audio system playing in the back ground.

It\'s not like \"being stoned\" on acid - but ones perception of reality is so altered, that one actually \"disengages\" from reality.

Listening to yourself talking on talk back radio - with the phone in one hand and the radio playing close by - and the 3 second delay in live to air broad casting - and trying to concentrate while talking - while what you just said is being played back to you 3 seconds later - is just drug free LSD tripping - the effect of that is just so \"full on\".

Mr Stiffy

By raising children without letting them get hurt we have produced a population of adults no more capable of recognizing danger than small children.


No excuses. As a driver it is always your responsibility to look out for, and if necessary stop for, pedestrians. The question of whether they might be deaf, listening to an ipod, too young to understand the dangers or even drunk makes no difference. Cities that give priority to people on foot end up as more pleasant places to live.

It's me

I reckon Slowburn has hit the nail squarely on the head. For a similar reason, people are surprised when called to accept blame for doing wrong or causing offence. Ian Colley.


How long ago did we stop teaching people to look both ways before crossing the street?


Anyone consider there\'s just might be a lot more people walking for one reason or another? Perhaps its not a complete explanation for the change in the statistic but I bet it\'s part of it. \'Wonder how many of them were hit by sonically low-volume, hybrid cars? It\'s a creepy feeling when one of those runs up on me in a parking lot; \'feels like I\'m being stalked!

Guy Newport

This article brushes the subject of drivers being distracted along with the distracted pedestrians, but doesn\'t really bring it up. Perhaps the increase in pedestrian deaths is more likely due to the distracted drivers than the distracted pedestrians.

I am both a pedestrian (walking to lunch, to public transportation, or back and forth to my car) and a driver in the city of St. Louis. I can\'t count the number of times I\'ve either almost been hit or seen another pedestrian nearly get hit, but I have noticed that most of those drivers were talking on their cell phones or had one in their hand. Many of them were going the wrong way on a multi-lane one way street (something else for pedestrians to watch for).

I have also nearly been hit by another motorist while driving my car when I yielded to pedestrians! Most of the time it was when they were in the crosswalk and had the right of way, too. Many of the motorist even took this opportunity to honk and/or flip the bird at me as well.

Also, most of the traffic/pedestrian lights in St. Louis are set up to give the pedestrian a walk signal and the traffic a green light. When traffic wants to turn right on green, it is forced to wait for the pedestrians. Sometimes the same thing occurs when turning left, especially at the odd intersections produced by one way street driving. I think the city planners need to write a new playbook on moving traffic with pedestrians. The one they are currently using is outdated by about 15 to 20 years.

Gene Jordan

\"Also, most of the traffic/pedestrian lights in St. Louis are set up to give the pedestrian a walk signal and the traffic a green light. When traffic wants to turn right on green, it is forced to wait for the pedestrians. Sometimes the same thing occurs when turning left, especially at the odd intersections produced by one way street driving. I think the city planners need to write a new playbook on moving traffic with pedestrians.\"

Gene, what would you propose? A separate light cycle for pedestrians? That would add to the time that traffic has to be stopped. Green for both pedestrians and traffic is the best compromise between safety and traffic flow. Drivers just need to remember to yield to pedestrians crossing with the light as the law requires. The only way to do better would be to convert our nation to autonomous cars, which unfortunately probably won\'t happen in our lifetimes or even in our children\'s lifetimes.

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