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Distracted Pedestrians An Increasing Risk

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Distracted Pedestrians An Increasing Risk


Distracted Pedestrians An Increasing Risk

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

Several states have laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving. Now, some doctors and safety experts also are warning against using phones and other electronic devices while walking. They say deaths and injuries are becoming more common among pedestrians who are talking on the phone, texting, or listening to music through headphones.

Carol Guensburg, one of NPR's digital media editors, spent the past few months looking into the problem of distracted pedestrians, and she's written about it on

CAROL GUENSBURG: There are incidents of injuries and accidents, but what's frightening is that NPR found that last year alone, there were 11 deaths that -in which pedestrians' use of portable electronics may have played a role. We found cases in which pedestrians were injured and killed using cell phones and MP3 players.

HANSEN: We'll hear more from Carol Guensburg about what public and private agencies are doing to help prevent these fatalities, in a moment. But first, we sent NPR's Adam Hochberg to Ohio State University, where researchers have been studying the dangers of using mobile technology on the move.

(Soundbite of traffic)

ADAM HOCHBERG: Stand on a busy street corner at Ohio State University, and you'll notice there aren't many students on this campus who enjoy quiet walks. As they scurry to class, about half of them have something in their ears, either headphones to listen to music, or cell phones they talk on loudly enough for passers-by to overhear snippets of their conversations.

Unidentified Man: Uh-huh. Yeah, all right.

Unidentified Woman: Aw, that's cute. 'Cause she's so fat?

HOCHBERG: Of course, there's nothing unusual about these students. You'd see and hear the same thing at most college campuses and on a lot of city streets. But we came to Ohio State because researchers here are raising questions about the safety of pedestrians who use wireless phones or MP3 players.

Professor Jack Nasar studied how the devices affect people's ability to do simple things like cross the street.

Professor JACK NASAR (Ohio State University): This is one of the three crosswalks we did the observations in the study at. We went through a whole process to choose crosswalks where we could catch an individual pedestrian crossing, like this person right here, and where we would catch people who are talking on cell phones and iPods.

HOCHBERG: Nasar has published two studies that suggest pedestrians using mobile electronics are less aware of their surroundings. And people on the phone are more likely to do something unsafe. Nasar did his observations at campus crosswalks last year. And a couple weeks ago, when we returned with him to the same spots, we saw several students who seemed oblivious to traffic around them.

(Soundbite of traffic)

HOCHBERG: There's somebody on the cell phone there.

Prof. NASAR: Ah, I don't think she - she didn't - did she see that, the SUV coming up?

HOCHBERG: She didn't act like she even noticed there was a car coming.

Prof. NASAR: She walked right in front of an oncoming car.

HOCHBERG: Nasar stresses his studies are small and preliminary. But his conclusions are consistent with the experience of some of the nation's doctors. The American College of Emergency Physicians says its members are seeing a growing number of accidents among pedestrians using mobile devices.

Dr. CHARLES B. CAIRNS (Professor and Chair, University of North Carolina Department of Emergency Medicine): So, for example, this is a case where a patient was walking and texting and then hit by a car.

HOCHBERG: Chuck Cairns heads the University of North Carolina Department of Emergency Medicine. Searching hospital records from his state, he found several cases where electronics users stepped in front of vehicles, walked into objects, or hurt themselves in other ways.

Dr. CAIRNS: The overall number of incidents is relatively small, so I don't think that we can make a sweeping conclusion that people are banging down the doors of emergency departments with iPod and cell phone injuries. But there are plenty of incidents where people either get hit by a car or do something that they wouldn't otherwise do.

HOCHBERG: Dr. Cairns' staff saw an especially tragic case last spring. A jogger on the UNC campus was killed when she ran in front of a bus. Cairns says she couldn't hear it because she was wearing an iPod. MP3 players and cell phones also may have played roles in other deaths last year.

There was a San Francisco pedestrian who stepped in front of a pickup truck while texting, a Massachusetts woman hit by a Jeep while talking on the phone. And Laurie White's(ph) 16-year-old son, Joshua, who was killed by a train in North Carolina while wearing headphones.

Ms. LAURIE WHITE: He was walking home from school and had his MP3 player on, and chose to walk on the train tracks to cross the trestles. And so, he did not hear the train coming, and then he got ran over by the train.

HOCHBERG: White said she knew her son liked to listen to loud, Christian rock music. She had warned him it could hurt his ears. But she said she never imagined he'd walk on train tracks with headphones, nor did she know MP3 players could be turned up high enough to drown out a train whistle.

Ms. WHITE: It's shocking that it could be that loud, 'cause I walk with them as well. And you don't think about - that you just can't hear anything. Because I think if he could've heard the train, he could've got over, and he would've been safe.

HOCHBERG: White said she wants to warn other parents about the risks of what her son did. She said she no longer lets her two younger children wear headphones outside. Around the country, several organizations are targeting safety campaigns at gadget-wearing pedestrians.

San Francisco's transit agency is running TV ads that depict a jogger with headphones getting hit by a bus - while the wireless industry has produced educational material for children and parents, advising them, among other things, not to text as they cross the street. Joe Farren is a spokesman for CTIA, an industry trade group.

Mr. JOE FARREN (Spokesman, CTIA): We can't stress enough the importance of personal responsibility in this regard. And people should, at all times, when using a wireless device, or walking a dog or drinking a cup of coffee, they need to be safe pedestrians.

(Soundbite of traffic)

HOCHBERG: Back at Ohio State University, few students we spoke with seem willing to leave their electronic devices behind when they walked through campus. Junior Kirk Grand says he has no problem multitasking, watching for traffic while he talks with friends on the phone.

Mr. KIRK GRAND: I think I pay more attention to where I'm walking and less attention to what they're saying sometimes. So, sometimes I'm, like, oh, what did you just say?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAND: But I usually keep a watchful eye out.

HOCHBERG: Recent graduate Rebecca McCarthy(ph) said she also tries to be more observant when she wears her iPod on campus, but she knows there's some danger to doing it.

Ms. REBECCA MCCARTHY: It's definitely true that you're not going to hear -something maybe coming from behind you or somebody, like, right next to you that you're not expecting. So, I kind of am extra sensory with my eyes.

HOCHBERG: In the past couple of years, legislators in two states, New York and Illinois, proposed outlawing cell phone and headphone use among pedestrians. The measures were widely derided and quickly failed. But safety advocates say many accidents could be prevented if electronics users simply obeyed existing laws, like the ones against jaywalking and trespassing on train tracks.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News.

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