Texting and Walking

Years ago, a cruel joke often applied to the less coordinated was that “He couldn’t walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.” The idea of not being able to do two such mindless tasks simultaneously was seen as the pinnacle of incompetence. Fast forward 50 years. Today, it seems that texting and walking is a serious problem for most people. In the time it takes to look down and respond to a text message, you can walk across a busy intersection.

Now here’s the scary part. Many people behind the wheel are not paying attention either. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 23 percent of all car crashes in 2010 were caused by distracted drivers. A Fox News article citing research from the Journal of Injury Prevention pointed out that pedestrians who text or talk on their phones are less cautious and walk more slowly than undistracted walkers.

Researchers monitored 1,102 walkers at 20 different intersections in Seattle, Wash. They found that one out of every three people used their phones to talk, listen to music or text while they crossed the street. On average, music listeners walked slightly faster than undistracted pedestrians, but texters took 18 percent longer to cross the street. Moreover, the texters were nearly four times more likely to disobey traffic signals, cross mid-intersection, or walk without looking both ways. Women were twice as likely as men to exhibit at least one unsafe crossing behavior.

A research team at Stony Brook University conducted a study around texting while walking and found that participants consistently veered away from walking a straight path by a 60 percent deviation. This could explain why people walk into light poles, step off curbs, fall into fountains, and even walk off piers while texting.

An study published in PLOS One (the Public Library of Science) by Siobhan M. Schabrun, Wolbert van den Hoorn, Alison Moorcroft, Cameron Greenland, Paul W. Hodges explains how this may happen. They conducted their research at the University of Queensland, School of Health and Rehabilitation Science and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Clinical Research Excellence in Spinal Pain, Injury and Health, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

According to the authors, cognitive distraction, altered mechanical demands, and the reduced visual field associated with texting are likely causes.They asked 26 healthy individuals to walk at a comfortable pace in a straight line over a distance of approximately 30 feet while 1) walking without the use of a phone, 2) reading text on a mobile phone, or 3) typing text on a mobile phone.

Compared to normal waking, “when participants read or wrote text messages they walked with: greater absolute lateral foot position from one stride to the next; slower speed; greater rotation range of motion (ROM) of the head with respect to global space; the head held in a flexed position; more in-phase motion of the thorax and head in all planes, less motion between thorax and head (neck ROM); and more tightly organized coordination in lateral flexion and rotation directions. While writing text, participants walked slower, deviated more from a straight line and used less neck ROM than reading text. Although the arms and head moved with the thorax to reduce relative motion of the phone and facilitate reading and texting, movement of the head in global space increased and this could negatively impact the balance system. Texting, and to a lesser extent reading, modify gait performance.

They concluded: Texting or reading on a mobile phone may pose an additional risk to safety for pedestrians navigating obstacles or crossing the road.

77% of the world’s population now owns a mobile phone according to the authors. Although the dangers of typing text while driving have received considerable interest, attention is now shifting to texting while walking.

People who type while crossing the street in experience more hits by motor vehicles. They look away from the street more frequently than those who are not distracted. Likewise, emailing on a mobile phone reduces gait velocity, stride length and stance phase during walking. These findings, coupled with a sharp increase in the number of pedestrians injured while talking or texting have led to bans on texting while walking in some towns in the United States.
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