Living Heads Down: Distracted Walking May Be Our Newest Deadly Problem

By: Bridget Clerkin July 18, 2018
Walkers with their eyes on their phones are increasingly being injured and killed in roadways worldwide.
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In the lightning-fast 21st century, it can take less than a second to permanently impact—or end—a life.

By now, the deadly effects of distracted driving are well documented. Glancing down at a text for just five seconds is the equivalent of traveling blind down a football field, at 55 MPH.

And despite the fact that a majority of Americans polled said they knew texting and driving was wrong, an estimated 481,000 people used a handheld device while behind the wheel every day in 2016.

But the technological siren song isn’t just being played in our vehicles.

Distracted walking is a growing epidemic, responsible for an increasing number of pedestrian deaths across the globe.

The rise of heads-down living has triggered concern from governments and businesses alike. A number of campaigns have been launched imploring screen-gazers to disengage. But successes have been scant, as the number of pedestrian fatalities has continued to grow.

Think Globally

In China, they’re called the Heads-Down Tribe: necks bowed and fingers furiously tapping, they see the world as nothing more than what exists at the periphery of their screen.

But ignoring the real world has real consequences.

Nearly 68,000 pedestrians die every year in China, accounting for more than a quarter of the country’s total 260,000 roadway fatalities, according to the World Health Organization.

While the number of deadly incidents involving distracted walking specifically has not yet been determined, business leaders in China aren’t waiting to find out.

Distracted walking has become such a problem in China that some malls have begun placing signs on the ground to grab a pedestrian's attention.

A large mall in Shaanxi province recently unveiled “cell phone only” lanes for pedestrians. The bright green paths are meant to catch the attention of someone locked in to an LCD screen. And along the way, the business group implores lane users to pay more attention, with polite reminders like, “Please don’t look down for the rest of your life.”

The move mirrors an idea launched in a different Chinese city in 2014. A nearly 100-foot-long “cell phone only” lane was painted along a sidewalk in Chongquing, with walkers being warned to use their mobile device “at your own risk.”

And the movement has taken hold outside of Asia, as well.

In 2016, the German city of Augsburg installed traffic lights into the sidewalks, to help aid screen-addicted walkers. (That project was rumored to be inspired by a report finding nearly one-fifth of pedestrians across Europe were walking distractedly.)

And while the warnings and lights haven’t yet permanently marked up sidewalks at home, tech-loving Americans, too, are increasingly susceptible to the danger.

Act Locally

In 2017, nearly 6,000 pedestrians perished in roadway accidents across America, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. It marked the second time in two years the number beat a 25-year-old record. (Pedestrians were also one of the only groups to see increasing fatalities over that time.)

And the trend carries over to those badly hurt on the road. An estimated 11,100 injuries stemmed from distracted walking incidents—specifically those involving cell phones—between 2000 and 2011, the National Safety Council found

An estimated 11,100 injuries stemmed from distracted walking incidents—specifically those involving cell phones—between 2000 and 2011, the National Safety Council found.

The problem has become so bad, it’s prompted a response from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), who deal with a lion’s share of the injuries sustained in distracted walking cases. Incidents of tripping, falling, tumbling down stairs, and stepping awkwardly off sidewalks have led to an increase in sprains, fractures, cuts, and bruises, the group declared in 2015.

A survey commissioned later that year by the AAOS found that 26% of the 6,000 respondents had personally suffered an injury from walking distractedly. Four in 10 witnessed someone else get hurt that way.

Additional studies found walking while on the phone led to inattentive blindness, with 75% of phone users failing to notice “unusual” activity around them, compared to those who were walking electronics-free. And those using phones while crossing virtual streets in another test were far more likely to get hit by a car in the controlled (and injury-free) scenario.

Similar striking numbers prompted Honolulu officials to make texting and walking a misdemeanor crime in 2017. The city was one of the first in the world to legislate specifically against the action. (Distracted walkers there incurred a much less charming nickname than in China. Police had taken to calling them the “Smartphone Zombies.”)

But it may take more than the threat of a $35 fine to get pedestrians to put down the phone.

Looking Up

Experts who have evaluated the issue say it boils down to a matter of self-control.

Official recommendations for avoiding the problem include not wearing headphones while walking, or keeping the volume down; refraining from speaking on the phone, especially while crossing the street; staying aware of traffic patterns; and avoiding sending or answering texts. (The last bit may prove the most difficult to follow. In December 2012 alone, Americans sent more than 171.3 billion text messages, according to the Wireless Association.)

That the suggestions had to be made at all may be a bit worrying to some. But the ideas are nothing if not simple, giving us plenty of reasons to keep our heads—and our hopes—up.

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