Smartphones linked to deaths

I’ve nearly cleaned up about five people on different occasions walking across the road, steadfastly glued to their phone. This, as I’m driving through the city.

I’ve had two people simply walk across the road in front of me while driving along a busy four-lane thoroughfare in my hometown.

I’ve seen one person nearly taken out by a train because he had his headphones in and eyes fixed to his phone screen.

Then there are the multiple times while catching pubic transport that I’ve tripped over or banged into the back of a person who’s stopped in front of me to text or check that all important Facebook feed update. Don’t get me started about those who stop to stare at their screens one step off the escalator or out the train door.

I’m almost of the mind to petition for a no-texting-while-walking bylaw in Melbourne, especially in the university district and on or near public transport platforms. The face-stuck-to-phone thing is getting ridiculous.

And I have some scientific evidence to back up my plea. Smartphone texting has been linked to compromised pedestrian safety in a new study published in the journal, Injury Prevention.

According to research conducted by Canadian researchers, there are higher rates of ‘near misses’ and failure to look left and right before crossing a road while texting than either listening to music or talking on the phone.

Worldwide, some 270,000 pedestrians die each year. That’s around one fifth of all road traffic deaths. Many of those deaths, it seems, could be avoided if certain distractions were eliminated.

‘Pedestrian distraction’ has become a recognised safety issue. So, researchers analysed 33 studies on pedestrian behaviour to find links between distracted pedestrians and crashes.

They examined the potential impact on road safety of hand-held/hands-free device activities, including talking, texting or browsing, and listening to music on the phone.

They focused on the time taken to start walking or begin crossing the road; missed opportunities to cross safely; time taken to cross the road; looking left and right before or during crossing, and collisions and close calls with other pedestrians and vehicles.

The researchers found that listening to music did not increase the risk of harm or death to pedestrians.

There was an increase in the time taken to start crossing the road, as well as more missed opportunities to cross the road safely while pedestrians talked on the phone.

Texting, though, was found to be the most harmful behaviour, associated with lower rates of looking left and right immediately before and/or while crossing the road, and with increased rates of collisions and close calls with other pedestrians or vehicles.

Texting also increased the time taken to cross a road and missed opportunities to cross safely.

Both mobile phone conversation and text messaging increased rates of hits and close calls.

The percentage of distracted pedestrians ranged from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the eight studies, and behaviours were also influenced by gender, time of day, whether crossing solo or as a group, and walking speed.

The researchers pointed out: “Given the ubiquity of smartphones, social media, apps, digital video and streaming music, which has infiltrated most aspects of daily life, distracted walking and street cross will be a road safety issue for the foreseeable future.”

The researchers admitted to limitations to the study, such as interpretation and generalisation of the results, but say that “establishing the relationship between distracted walking behaviour and crash risk is an essential research need”, highlighting the need for improved street signage and awareness campaigns.

Do you think texting and other forms of pedestrian distraction are harmful to people’s health? Should there be improved awareness of, or even penalties for, such behaviour?

Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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