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Distracted walking? Hey, it’s your problem, not mine

Although most of us agree that distracted walking — walking while talking or texting on a cellphone — has become a significant safety issue, we tend to think it’s a problem caused by other people rather than by ourselves, according to the results of a new survey.

Here’s the disconnect: While 74 percent of the Americans surveyed said “other people” are usually or always walking while distracted, only 29 percent admitted to doing it themselves.

That denial is a problem for everybody, says Dr. Alan Hilibrand, an orthopedic surgeon and spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), which conducted the survey. 

“Today, the dangers of the ‘digital deadwalker’ are growing,” he said in a released statement, “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.”

Indeed, one study has found that cellphone-related injuries to pedestrians increased at the same rate between 2004 and 2011 as cellphone-related injuries to drivers.  And other research has shown that pedestrians talking on a cellphone are twice as likely to be hit by a car — and those who are texting or listening to music on their device are four times more likely — than pedestrians who are distraction-free.

Key findings

The AAOS survey, which was conducted last October, involved a national sampling of more than 2,000 adults. Here are some of its key findings:

  • Almost four in 10 respondents (38 percent) said they had personally witnessed a distracted walking incident (someone on a cellphone bumping into someone else, or tripping or falling, or being hit by a moving vehicle). Slightly more than one in four (26 percent) said they had been personally involved in such an incident.
  • Young adults aged 18 to 34 reported the highest rates of distracted walking incidents, but they were the least likely to be injured in such an incident. The most likely to be injured: women aged 55 and older.
  • When asked to characterized distracted walking, 46 percent of the respondents said it was “embarrassing (in a silly way)” — the same percentage that called it “dangerous.”

But here’s what I found to be the most troubling finding from the study: Only 7 percent of the people surveyed admitted to not being able to do multiple things at once “very well.” As the AAOS points out, overconfidence in our ability to multitask is one of the biggest challenges safety experts face in combatting distracted walking (and distracted driving). People — all of us — tend to significantly overestimate our ability to focus on more than one thing at a time.

In fact, a 2013 study found that people who think they are great at multitasking (talking on a mobile device while driving) are actually the worst at it.

The AAOS public service campaign “Digital Deadwalkers”

Pedestrian tips

The AAOS offers these tips to help pedestrians stay injury free: 

  • If you must use headphones or other electronic devices, maintain a volume where you can still hear the sounds of traffic and your surroundings.

  • 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.

  • While you walk, focus on the people, objects, and obstacles 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.

  • Stay alert in mall and other parking lots, and on and near streets, especially during the winter months when it gets dark earlier and drivers are not as likely to see you.

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