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Are you reading this while walking? Study reveals risks

Keith Seinfeld

Walking is becoming more hazardous, with the spread of smart-phones. And it’s not just because drivers are distracted.

Pedestrians who are texting or reading messages are four times more likely to do something dangerous than other pedestrians, according to researchers who looked at 20 of Seattle’s busiest intersections.

Overall, about a quarter of all pedestrians had some sort of technological distraction, such as ear-buds, cell-phones, or text-messaging. But the impact of those technologies varies widely.

And, by far, the most hazardous activity is typing or tapping at your handheld device.

“The thing about text messaging is it captures you in, you get engaged,” says Dr. Beth Ebel of Harborview Medical Center’s Injury Prevention program, the senior author of the study, published inInjury Prevention (a British Medical Journal publication).

“The minute you check to see who it is, your brain is elsewhere … and your brain is not engaged in a task like walking in the middle of the street.”

The research team watched the behaviors of 1,102 pedestrians last summer, at different times of day. They recorded the ages, genders and what the pedestrians were doing.

The good news: 70% were not distracted at all.

Smartphones encouraging dumb behavior

Yet, they saw pedestrians looking at their devices step off the curb without once looking up. People texting took longer to cross the street.

“When you cross in front of a vehicle and you are not looking at the drivers eyes, and not looking at the next lane over, you are at serious risk of an injury,” says Ebel.

Other studies have looked at the effects of texting devices on driving, but this is one of the first to look in detail at pedestrian behavior in real-world situations.

Public education or enforcement needed

It might be time for a safety campaign, says Ebel, similar to the “buckle-up” seatbelt promotions or the anti-drunk driving efforts.

She’s coaching her children, and her patients as a pediatrician, to make a conscious choice about where they use their devices.

“Text. Do what you want, look at your internet,” she says. "But, it’s not okay for you to do that while in your vehicle, and it’s really a poor and risky idea while you're [walking] in an intersection.”

Top-10 Intersections for pedestrian injuries (from Seattle DOT):

  1. 3rd Ave & Pike St
  2. 5th Ave & Spring St
  3. Broadway E & E Olive Way
  4. 5th Ave S & S Jackson St
  5. 6th Ave & Pine St 
  6. Denny Way & Stewart St 
  7. 15th Ave NW & NW Market St
  8. 23rd Ave & E Jefferson St
  9. Aurora Ave N & N Northgate Way
  10. 3rd Ave & Lenora St
Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.