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Can you walk and chew the fat at the same time?

Injuries to pedestrians on cell phones are rising, demonstrating another down side of multitasking.

By Teresa Mears Jan 19, 2010 2:35PM

You may think you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but you’d better think twice before you add talking on the phone or texting.


We all know about the dangers of distracted driving. But even on foot, our ability to multitask may not be what we think it is, The New York Times reports.


The number of people injured while walking and texting or talking on a cell phone is on the rise, The Times reports, citing a study by Ohio State University professor Jack L. Nasar.


Nasar and a graduate student analyzed statistical data on emergency room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. They found that slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cell phone.


That was twice the number from 2007, which was twice the number of people injured while talking or texting in 2006.

The injured included a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion, a 28-year-old man who tripped and broke a finger, and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cell phone, spraining a thumb and an ankle.


Researchers actually say it’s much easier to walk and chew gum than it is to walk and text.


“Walking and chewing are repetitive, well-practiced tasks that become automatic,” Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Times. “They don’t compete for resources like texting and walking.”


Previous studies have demonstrated that people using their phones often don’t notice objects or people in front of them. A Western Washington University psychology professor and his students had one student dress as a clown and ride around on a unicycle on campus. About half the people walking alone said they had seen the clown, but only 25% of those on a cell phone saw him. Interestingly, people walking in pairs and talking to each other were more likely to see the clown, meaning talking itself may not be the distraction.

Another study found that distracted drivers add to commuting time. We can see that distracted pedestrians crossing the street in front of distracted drivers would double the risk.


Commenters on the Times Web site were, predictably, not surprised that walking and texting are an accident waiting to happen. Many shared tales of near-misses with oblivious, cell phone-toting pedestrians.


One reader named Rich wrote:

The fact that we have to point this out is laughable. Isn’t it common sense not to walk and talk on a cell phone? I am c'mon. If you are crossing the street and engrossed in conversation, you will never see the car that just whizzed by the stop sign. Just as someone who is talking and driving misses the car who cut him off. Why are people so devoid of common sense?

Another reader, William Le Gro, lamented the effect of cell phones and MP3 players on society as well as the danger:

I can't count the number of times oblivious cell-phone-talking-listening-dialing-fiddling pedestrians have nearly walked into my car. And don't forget the equally mentally absent iPod-listeners. No technology displays humans’ utter self-absorption more than cell phones and MP3 players, whether they're walking or driving. It's astonishing to me how so many people can become so unaware of their surroundings and other people so quickly and so completely. It certainly doesn't say much for their intelligence, which, after all, is the basis for survival. And if not for my hyper-awareness whenever I see a wired-up pedestrian nearby, many of them would be limping now, if not in the morgue. 

What’s the answer? Is it time for a “just say no” to distracted walking publicity campaign?


We are going to confess to an insatiable urge to multitask, though we’re not part of the texting generation and don’t usually talk on the phone while walking or driving (though we confess to a great temptation to check e-mail at red lights). We have noticed that communing with one’s handheld device often means missing life in the here and now in favor of focusing on messages that can wait.


Ben H. Winters of The Huffington Post offers a tongue-in-cheek solution:

But if the digital age has created the problem, so too has it provided the elegant solution. You've heard that the Internet has seriously, probably fatally, damaged print media. Newspapers, suffering from some deep self-loathing, run stories about the Death of the newspaper pretty much every day.
We can, therefore, kill two digital-age birds with one analog stone. Tomorrow, instead of checking the online headlines on your way out the door, buy the actual printed paper, at the newsstand, just like grandpa used to do. Then, roll it up and carry it under your arm. And when some twittering galoot busy with a handheld whatever is about to crash into you, whack him over the head with the rolled-up newspaper!

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