There has been a great deal of focus lately on the issue of distracted driving and rightly so. Lots of it has centered on sending text messages while driving. But talking on a cell phone while driving, however, can also cause enough distraction to slow down a driver’s reaction time. In 2010, approximately 21 percent of all auto crashes involved persons using cell phone devices. Surprisingly, cell phone use while walking is a growing source of personal injuries. In fact the number of injuries related to using a cell phone while walking has more than doubled since 2005. More than 1,500 pedestrians were estimated to be treated in an emergency room in 2010 as the result of these incidents.
Some of the increase in injuries can be attributed to the fact that cell phone use has grown dramatically during the past 15 years. In 1996, cell phone subscriptions covered only 14 percent of the U.S. population. By 2011, it had grown to 102 percent. Research has shown that at any point during the day, 10 percent of drivers are using electronic devices, whether speaking on a phone or texting. That certainly creates a safety hazard on our highways.
But the sidewalks are no safer. Dr. Jack Nasar, co-author of a new study on pedestrian injures as a result of cell phone use while walking, says:
If current trends continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015. The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and deaths gets a lot of attention and rightly so, but we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.
Dr. Nasar conducted the study with Derek Troyer, a former graduate student at The Ohio State University. They used data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a database maintained by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC), which samples injury reports from 100 hospitals around the country. The study results appear in the August 2013 issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.
Pedestrian injuries ranged from a case where a 14-year-old boy walking down a road while talking on a cell phone fell 6 to 8 feet off a bridge, suffering chest and shoulder injuries; to a 23-year-old man who was struck by a car while walking on the middle line of a road and talking on a cell phone, injuring his hip.
There are two obvious risks to using a cell phone while driving or walking: visual – looking away from the road or pathway; and manual – removing your hands from the steering wheel when driving a car. But there is another type of hazard that applies to both driving and walking: cognitive – taking your mind off the primary task of operating a vehicle or navigating a path.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that lots of folks really believe they can “multi-task.” In fact, multi-tasking is valued in today’s culture and our drive for increased productivity makes it tempting to use cell phones when driving or walking. Folks often believe they are effectively accomplishing two tasks at the same time if texting, checking Facebook, talking to a friend or even following GPS directions. However, this is the truth behind multi-tasking:
• Folks do not actually multi-task; and
• Folks do not accomplish both tasks with optimal focus and effectiveness.
Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time. Instead the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. The brain can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time. In reality, the brain is switching attention between tasks and only performing one task at a time.
In addition to “attention switching,” the brain engages in a constant process to deal with information that it receives. When the brain receives information it must go through the following steps:
• Select the information the brain will attend to;
• Process the information;
• Encode, a stage that creates memory; and
• Store the information.
Further, the brain must go through two more cognitive functions before it can act on saved information. It must retrieve stored information and also execute and act on the information.
For every information input, the brain must make decisions: whether to act on information processed, how to act, execute the action and stop the action. While this process mainly takes fractions of a second, all these steps do take time. When driving, fractions of seconds can be the time between a crash or no crash, injury or no injury, life or death. Research clearly indicates that the risk of crashing when using an electronic device is four times greater than when not using an electronic device while driving a vehicle.
The same holds true for walking. Dr. Nasar believes the number of injuries to distracted pedestrians is actually much higher than statistics suggest. He said a more accurate count of injuries to walkers might come from comparing distracted walking to distracted driving, which has been more heavily studied. Recent research examining increases in traffic accidents related to cell phone use suggests that the number of crash-related injuries in emergency rooms is actually about 1,300 times higher than CPSC national estimates, according to Dr. Nasar.
Findings showed that in 2004, an estimated 559 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms for injuries received while using a cell phone. The number dropped to 256 in 2005, but has risen every year since then. Young people ages 16 to 25 were most likely to be injured as distracted pedestrians and, surprisingly, most were hurt while talking rather than texting. Talking on the phone accounted for about 69 percent of injuries compared to texting, which accounted for about 9 percent.
Data is not available to compare CPSC estimates with actual injuries to distracted pedestrians. But if the pedestrian numbers are similar to those for drivers, there may have been about 2 million pedestrian injuries related to mobile phone use in 2010. Dr. Nasar also believes emergency room numbers underestimate actual injuries because not every person who is injured goes to an emergency room. Dr. Nasar believes the problem with distracted pedestrians is likely to get worse. He made this assessment of what to expect:
As more people get cell phones and spend more time using them, the number of injuries is likely to increase as well. Now people are playing games and using social media on their phones too.
Dr. Nasar believes the best way to reverse these numbers is to start changing norms for cell phone use in our society. We all have a vested interests in making this happen. Safety on our nation’s highways – and sidewalks – is important for all Americans.
Sources: distracteddriving.nsc.org and The Claims Journal
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