Walking while cellphoning can be hazardous to your health

Having raged and ranted about phoning/texting drivers and pedestrian-oblivious bikers, this space would now like to come to the defense of cellphoning walkers. Not, you understand, multi-tasking/app-studying cellphoning walkers, but talking walkers. Noting the attention that has recently focused on the hazards of distracted drivers, New York Times writer Matt Richtel reports on the new hazard:

But there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living room floor or a parked (or sometimes moving) car.

The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.

Most times, the mishaps for a distracted walker are minor, like the lightly dinged head and broken fingernail, a jammed digit or a sprained ankle, and, the befallen say, a nasty case of hurt pride. Of course, the injuries can sometimes be serious — and they are on the rise.

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 cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

“It’s the tip of the iceberg,” said Jack L. Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most of the injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices like the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy phone users.

There is the problem, it’s the apps. It is a solvable problem. Just as it is possible, without inviting death and destruction, to talk to a (non-distracting) passenger while driving a car, it is entirely possible to talk on a cellphone while walking. Many who have managed to do so without winding up in emergency rooms have the solution: don’t be accessing travel agencies and restaurant menus, just talk. Furthermore, do not give your cellphone number to anybody but your children and a few very good friends. They do not create angst while you are walking/talking, and will also understand that you turn the thing off when you get home. Anybody else can darn well call the land line and leave a message. The fact that addiction to electronic wizardry and perpetually multi-tasking with it is a fairly recent phenomenon probably explains another interesting discovery:

Mr. Nasar supervised the statistical analysis, which was done by Derek Troyer, one of his graduate students. He looked at records of emergency room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Examples of such (hospital) visits include 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 fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

Young people injured themselves more often. About half the visits Mr. Troyer studied were by people under 30, and a quarter were 16 to 20 years old. But more than a quarter of those injured were 41 to 60 years old.

Over 60? Except for the unfortunate gentleman strolling off his porch, we don’t event merit inclusion in the data. This may add up to one benefit of being too old to deal with the technological wonders of cellphone apps, and tending to use the cellphone as a phone. The Times article, highly recommended reading for all ages, is full of interesting factoids and neurological rationale. But much still boils down to the old can’t-walk-and-chew-gum adage.

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

Further, he said, the cellphone gives people a constant opportunity to pursue goals that feel more important than walking down the street.

“An animal would never walk into a pole,” he said, noting survival instincts would trump other priorities.

There could be a message here. Perhaps it is that the goal, or at least the top priority, of walking down the street should be to get to your destination in one piece. If you skip the apps and keep your eyes open for texting drivers at cross streets, it is entirely possible for someone of any age to accomplish this task — while talking on the cellphone.

Driven to Distraction – Pedestrians, Too, Are Distracted by Cellphones – Series – NYTimes.com.

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