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Texting pedestrians asking for trouble, study finds

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Researchers found 30 percent of pedestrians corssed the street while distracted. Many were texting.

They're a lot like Pavlov’s dogs, those people who hear the ping of a landing text message or email and immediately whip out their smartphone to respond.

Now researchers in Seattle have found 30 percent of those plugged-in pedestrians were crossing the street while peering at cellphone screens, listening to music, or otherwise not paying attention.

“I was surprised it was as prevalent as it is,” said Beth Ebel, who’s seen the consequences first-hand as director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center in Seattle and as a pediatrician at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

“I have seen a large increase in cases, anecdotally, both as a consequence of driving, walking and even while on horseback of people engaging in text messaging while in a task that requires concentration,” Ebel said. “The problem with text messaging is you are drawn into the communication, and so you are not thinking about what is around you. You do not have situational awareness.”

Ebel has also seen it herself while driving. “Sometimes I am stopped at a light and somebody walks in front of me, doesn’t catch my eye, doesn’t look at me,” she said.

Unfortunately, multi-tasking pedestrians are plentiful. Ebel’s team at the University of Washington watched 1,102 people crossing busy streets at 20 intersections at three different, randomly chosen times.

“Nearly one-third (29.8 percent) of all pedestrians performed a distracting activity while crossing,” they wrote in the journal Injury Prevention. “Distractions included listening to music (11.2 percent), text messaging (7.3 percent) and using a handheld phone (6.2 percent).”

In addition, those using their smart phones crossed more slowly, and were less likely to look around before stepping out into the street, Ebel’s team noted. They also crossed against the light more than undistracted pedestrians.

Sobering statistics show just how unsafe this is: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 60,000 pedestrians are injured and 4,000 killed every year in this country. And other studies have shown that people using cellphones while driving -- even hands-free -- are as impaired as if they'd had a drink or two.

We know we shouldn’t text and walk. But we do it anyway. Why the dangerous disconnect?

“Your brain is hard-wired for this,” says Ebel, who noticed the effect of an electronic summons years ago when, as a physician, she got her first beeper. “To me, this is the most classic Pavlovian model that I can think of."

As every first-year psychology student knows, Pavlov ran a series of experiments with dogs in which he rang a bell and then gave them food. Soon, the dogs began to salivate when the bell rang.

"Text messaging is just the same,” Ebel said. “The phone rings, and we get a nice treat.”

The treat is a fun or interesting text message – certainly more rewarding than looking at traffic.

“Why are we surprised that this is happening? It almost compulsive or instinctual,” Ebel said.

The problem is -- how do we stop it? Pointing out this bad behavior to strangers won't work, according to Ebel.

“I don’t imagine that it is effective to yell at them or scold them,” she said. “The irony of a lot of the cellphone discussion is we all feel indignant when we see someone doing something so risky in front of our noses, but the reality is many of us are doing this.”

Ebel predicts the related issues of cellphone use while driving and pedestrian cellphone use will go the way of drinking and driving laws. It will be illegal first, then socially unacceptable, she said.

As for how representative Seattle is of the entire country, Ebel is not sure. She hopes other people will study pedestrian behavior in their communities and is offering her study materials to schools.

“This is a great kind of project a school could do,” she said. “It makes kids more aware of how unaware people are are when they are distracted.”

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