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Originally published January 16, 2010 at 8:35 PM | Page modified January 17, 2010 at 6:07 AM

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Walking and texting? Watch out, you could have an accident

Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted at The Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — On the day of the collision in December, visibility was good. The sidewalk was not under repair. As she walked, Tiffany Briggs, 25, was talking to her grandmother on her cellphone, lost in conversation.

Very lost.

"I ran into a truck," Briggs said.

It was parked in a driveway.

Distracted driving has gained much attention lately because of the inflated crash risk posed by drivers using cellphones to talk and text.

But there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living-room floor, a parked car or, sometimes, a moving one.

The era of the mobile gadget is making mobility that much more perilous, particularly on crowded streets and in downtown areas where multiple multitaskers veer and swerve and walk to the beat of their own devices.

Most times, the mishaps that befall the distracted walker are minor, such as the lightly dinged head and broken fingernail that Briggs suffered, a jammed digit or a sprained ankle, and, the befallen say, a nasty case of hurt pride. The injuries can sometimes be serious, and they are on the rise.

Slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited emergency rooms in 2008 because they got distracted and tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cellphone to talk or text. That was twice the number from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006, according to a study conducted at The Ohio State University, which says it is the first to estimate such accidents.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," said Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, noting that the number of mishaps is probably much higher considering that most injuries are not severe enough to require a hospital visit. What is more, he said, texting is rising sharply and devices such as the iPhone have thousands of new, engaging applications to preoccupy users.

Nasar supervised the statistical analysis, which was done by Derek Troyer, one of his graduate students. He looked at records of emergency-room visits compiled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Examples of such visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

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Young people injured themselves more often. About half the visits Troyer studied were by people younger than 30, and one-quarter were 16 to 20. But more than one-quarter of those injured were 41 to 60.

Pedestrians, like drivers, have long been distracted by myriad tasks, such as snacking or reading on the go. But the ubiquity and constant interaction associated with electronic devices has made single-tasking seem boring or unproductive.

Cognitive psychologists, neurologists and other researchers are emerging to study the impact of constant multitasking, whether behind a desk or the wheel or on foot. Researchers are finding that just talking on a phone takes its own toll on cognition and awareness.

Bellingham study

Sometimes, pedestrians using phones do not notice objects or people right in front of them, even a clown riding a unicycle. That was the finding of a recent study at Western Washington University in Bellingham by a psychology professor, Ira Hyman, and his students.

One student dressed as a clown and unicycled around a central square on campus. About half the people walking in the square by themselves said they had seen the clown; the number was slightly higher for people walking in pairs. But only 25 percent of people talking on a cellphone said they had, Hyman said.

He said the term commonly applied to such preoccupation is "inattention blindness," meaning a person can be looking at an object but fail to register it or process what it is.

Particularly fascinating, Hyman said, is that people walking in pairs were more than twice as likely to see the clown as were people talking on a cellphone, suggesting that the act of having a conversation is not the cause of inattention blindness.

Visual functions, too

One possible explanation is that a cellphone conversation taxes not just auditory resources in the brain but also visual functions, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. That combination, he said, prompts the listener to, for example, create visual imagery related to the conversation in a way that overrides or obscures the processing of real images.

By comparison, walking and chewing gum — that age-old measure of pedestrian multitasking — is a snap.

"Walking and chewing are repetitive, well-practiced tasks that become automatic," Gazzaley said. "They don't compete for resources like texting and walking."

Further, he said, the cellphone gives people a constant opportunity to pursue goals that feel more important than walking down the street.

Shalamar Jones, 19, was just trying to keep in touch with her boyfriend last month while she was shopping in a mall near San Francisco. She was texting him when she walked into the window of a New York & Co. store, thinking it was a door.

"I thought it was open," she said.

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