News & Resources

The Dangers of Distracted Walking

June 4, 2021

Here’s a safety warning from Ridgeview Transitional Rehab!

Most of us these days are well aware of the dangers of distracted driving. We know it’s unsafe to text or even to talk on the phone while behind the wheel, even when using a hands-free device. Prudent drivers avoid accidents—and a hefty fine—by waiting until they are parked to use their phones. “The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and death gets a lot of attention and rightfully so,” said Ohio State University (OSU) professor Jack L. Nasar. “But we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.”

Nasar and a research team from the OSU Department of City and Regional Planning examined data related to pedestrian-car accidents, pedestrian falls, and other injuries involving distracted walking, and conjectured that up to two million injuries each year may be caused when people are walking while using a smartphone for texting or talking, even hands-free.

A second study, this one from the University of British Columbia, observed pedestrians over a period of time and found that multitasking in this way is more common than ever. “We found that more than a third of pedestrians were distracted by their cellphones, texting and reading or talking and listening,” said lead researcher Rushdi Alsaleh. “Distracted pedestrians had more trouble maintaining their walking speed and gait and took longer to cross the road, increasing the potential for conflict with vehicles.”

Alsaleh and his team also discovered another surprising consequence of distracted walking. They caution that driverless cars may be confused by the movements of distracted walkers and could hence be less able to stop and avoid a pedestrian. They say these cars need to be better calibrated to recognize the movements of pedestrians who might be on the phone—but those technical refinements are still a work in progress, so walkers beware!

Yet another clash of technologies can happen when a pedestrian who’s glued to their smartphone or engrossed in a phone conversation doesn’t see—or hear—the approach of an electric car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warns that these vehicles can sneak up on us, especially older models without an added noise-emitting device.

And machines aren’t the only hazard we need to watch out for when talking. Studies show that distracted walkers are more likely to bump into and trip over other pedestrians—a situation that’s all the worse when both are on their phones.

Older pedestrians at higher risk

University of Illinois researchers studied a group of volunteers who talked on the phone while walking on a “virtual street”—a treadmill environment simulating typical walking conditions. They found that the “pedestrians” who talked on a phone took longer to cross the street. They were also more likely to be “run over.”

“Many people assume that walking is so automatic that really nothing will get in the way,” said study author Prof. Art Kramer. “And walking is pretty automatic, but actually walking in environments that have lots of obstacles is perhaps not as automatic as one might think.”

Kramer’s team found that older smartphone users, especially those unsteady on their feet, to begin with, were even more likely to become traffic casualties. Kramer noted that seniors on the treadmill simulator were “run over” 15% more often than younger study subjects, and those with a history of falling fared even worse. “So walking and talking on the phone while old, especially, appears to be dangerous,” he said.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic surgeons agrees and notes that older adults are most likely to be seriously injured in these distracted walking incidents, whether they are hit by a car, or suffer a fall when tripping over a curb or rough pavement.

So remember: Just as you would pull over in your car to text or make a call, it’s wise to take the time to “pull over” to the side of the sidewalk to read a text or even to talk on the phone during your daily walk.