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The dangers of distracted walking: It’s no joke

Dec. 2, 2015
The dangers of distracted walking: It’s no joke

You would be forgiven for thinking that a new study on distracted walking issued by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) is nothing more than a joke.

I mean, seriously, we’re supposed to get up in arms about using our smart phones or listening to music while WALKING now? What is this, a Monty Python skit?

Indeed, AAOS found that while many believe it is "embarrassing in a silly way" and feel it is "dangerous" (46%) to engage in distracted walking behaviors, a large chunk of the 2,000 folks polled nationally (joined by another 4,000 drawn from in select urban areas) for its study said distracted walking is "something I'm likely to do" (31%) with 22% percent thinking distracted walking is "funny," according to the study conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs during October this year.

Yet distracted walking is actually far from a laughing matter. Just look at the most recent traffic fatality data released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): in 2014 along, some 4,884 pedestrians were killed as the result of vehicle crashes.

And I’ll bet that in more than a few of those cases, if those pedestrians weren’t distracted by talking on a cell phone, etc., they just might have avoided becoming a fatality statistic.

"Today, the dangers of the 'digital deadwalker' are growing with more and more pedestrians falling down stairs, tripping over curbs, bumping into other walkers, or stepping into traffic causing a rising number of injuries – from scrapes and bruises to sprains and fractures," noted Dr. Alan Hilibrand (seen at right), AAOS’s spokesperson.

He added that emergency department hospital visits for injuries involving distracted pedestrians on cell phones more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, according to a 2013 study appearing in the journal Accident, Analysis & Prevention.

The AAOS research found that nearly four out of 10 Americans say they have personally witnessed a distracted walking incident, and just over a quarter (26%) say they have been in an incident themselves.

  • Of those hurt in “distracted walking” incidents, women age 55 and over are most likely to suffer serious injuries, while Millennials, aged 18 to 34, are least likely to be injured while walking distracted, despite reporting higher rates of distracted walking incidents.
  • The perceptions of distracted walking also differ by generation; with 70% of Millennials believing that distracted walking is a serious issue compared to 81% of those aged 35 and older. Half of Millennials think distracted walking is "embarrassing – in a funny way."
  • Millennials are more likely to engage in common distracted walking behaviors than older people are: texting, listening to music and talking on the phone.

One of challenges in combating distracted walking may be that Americans are overly confident in their ability to multitask, noted AAOS’s Hilibrand.

When asked why they walk distracted, 48% of respondents say "they just don't think about it," 28% feel "they can walk and do other things," and 22% "are busy and want to use their time productively."

Among distracted walking behaviors, 75% of respondents say they themselves "usually/always" or "sometimes" have "active conversations" with another person they are walking with, making this the most common distracted walking behavior people admit to doing themselves.

In 500 person subset of AAOS’s survey conducted in eight major urban cities – New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, Philadelphia and Atlanta – some other interesting findings were unearthed:

  • Among these eight markets, New York City residents are most likely to view distracted walking as a serious issue (86%), and Seattle residents were least likely to view the issue as serious (77%).
  • New Yorkers are more likely to say they personally walk distracted (39%) than walkers living in the other cities.
  • Residents of Chicago and Philadelphia are most likely to see distracted walking as "dangerous" (49%), while those in Houston were the least likely to think it's dangerous (40%).

AAOS has also created a list of tips to help pedestrians stay injury free when walking indoors and outdoors, with most of said “tips” focused on how to safely interact with vehicular traffic:

  • If you must use headphones or other electronic devices, maintain a volume where you can still hear the sounds of traffic and your surroundings.
  • While you walk, focus on the people, as well as the objects and obstacles in front of and around you.
  • Don't jaywalk. Cross streets carefully, preferably at a traffic light, remaining cognizant of the pedestrian traffic flow and the cars and bikes in and near the road.
  • Look up, not down, especially when stepping off or onto curbs or in the middle of major intersections; and/or when walking or approaching on stairs or escalators.
  • Traffic can be especially busy during the holidays—stay alert in mall and other parking lots, and on and near streets, especially during the winter months when it gets dark earlier.
  • If you need to talk to a child or the person next to you, make a phone call, text or other action that could distract you from the goal of getting where you need to go safely, stop and do so away from the pedestrian traffic flow.

Some things to consider the next step you step out for a stroll.

About the Author

Sean Kilcarr 1 | Senior Editor

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