Perched in a leather armchair on a San Francisco stage recently, Apple’s Steve Jobs declared a new age of mobile media devices, starting with the new iPad. But for the millions of pedestrians outside in the streets, those distracting gadgets—especially cell phones—are creating some shocking, but mostly unreported, safety risks.
The future of computing seems centered on what we can take with us. Even basic cell phone models have sprouted touchscreens and always-on connections that let us surf, talk, and text anywhere—like on the walk to work or class, or even just across the living room. But this mobile universe has come with a high price. Chatting drivers have been in the news, but injuries to distracted pedestrians are also rising fast.
These incidents are usually minor: banging into a pole or car, or the rare case of falling into a manhole. But others are more serious. In 2008, over 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency departments due to injuries sustained while walking and either texting or talking on cell phones, according to the New York Times. That’s twice as many as in 2007, which in turn was twice the 2006 total.
And that doesn’t include walkers distracted by music on iPods or other MP3 players. Sixteen-year-old Joshua White of Cramerton, N.C., often walked home from school along a length of railroad tracks. One day last year, lost in his music, White “never wavered in his walk” as a freight train approached from behind—even as the train’s conductor sounded the horn, according to police. He was struck and killed. NPR estimated that in 2008, at least 11 people died (usually after being struck by a train) because they were preoccupied with portable electronics. White’s case and others like it prompted a San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency ad campaign featuring the slogan, “Do you want Beethoven to be the last thing you hear?”
The mobile mayhem is no niche problem, but one that affects nearly all of us. Over 135 billion text messages sailed through the airwaves in June of last year, up from 7.2 billion in June 2005. We’ve grown accustomed to constant multitasking. 1 in 1.49 (67%) people talk on cell phones while driving at least once a month, and 1 in 8.33 employed email users 18 or older make work-related calls on the go. One study found that staring at cell screens can make us utterly oblivious to our surroundings, a phenomenon called inattentional blindness—in one study, just 25 percent of participants crossing a street while using their phones noticed a unicycling clown passing by.
New phones sport thousands of apps that keep us ever-engaged—even, in a few cases, with our surroundings. One new iPhone app uses the phone’s camera to display what’s ahead; users have reported mixed results in avoiding collisions with telephone poles. Texthook, a handy gizmo for moms and dads of newborns, makes it a breeze to text while pushing the stroller.
States have struggled to figure out whether and how to intervene. Legislators in Illinois and New York have proposed banning electronics while crossing the street, but both bills stalled last year. In London, one company teamed up with a nonprofit to outfit lampposts with padding. The American College of Emergency Physicians went so far as to issue a press release last summer warning students not to walk and text. Meanwhile, a pedestrian is killed every 110 minutes, reports the Institute for Highway Safety. And the odds you’ll visit an emergency room due to an accidental fall aren’t so long: 1 in 34.68.
One possibility may be to follow the lead of Finland, home to Nokia. There, some crosswalks now display red and green lights on the pavement itself, so texters looking down know whether it’s safe to cross.