Cell Phone Talking and Street Crossings Don’t Mix Well

It is a known fact that talking on cellphones while walking on the roads or driving is unsafe but few studies have quantified this risk. It has also been seen that college students face a higher risk of getting injured in this manner. This study showed that regular or mundane talk on cellphones as well as more complex and demanding conversations distracted college-aged people significantly. Study authors write, “Results may inform researchers, policy makers, and pedestrians themselves. Educational campaigns might discourage telephone conversations in pedestrian environments.”

Many pedestrians who are frequently injured during traffic accidents are college-goers and young people. Surveys have shown that 924 young people between ages 16 and 24 were killed and 20,000 had to visit the hospital in such accidents in 2007. At present, most American college-goers carry a cell phone and many of them are found to be chatting on their mobile phones while crossing heavily trafficked streets. Surveys have revealed that 90 percent of young adults also admit that they have answered cell phone calls while driving. There have been no studies that assess the risk of accidents to pedestrians talking on cell phones while crossing the roads. This study attempted to look at the level of distractions that can happen while simultaneously talking on the phone and attempting to cross the street. It also attempted to prove that students who were new cellphone users and had less pedestrian experience and also lower performance scores on neuropsychological tests on attention, would be much more distracted.

* Two experiments were conducted in the study. In Experiment One, 108 students were recruited. For Experiment Two, 59 college students were recruited.
* The participants in Experiment One were included in a virtual computer-generated environment where they attended to a regular mundane cell phone call. Their behavior of crossing the make-believe road was noted.
* In the second experiment three types of conversation was tried on the participants. The first was a normal conversation, second a cognitive task that took concentration and the third was an arithmetic problem to be solved on the phone.

Data/Results/Key findings
* All forms of conversations were successful in distracting the participant.
* Male pedestrians where hit or almost hit significantly higher than female pedestrians during the virtual environment aspect of the study.
* It was noted that distractions in Experiment One did not affect the attention paid to the traffic. Participants did follow the rule of looking right and left before crossing the road but the decision-making process based on the visual information was somehow affected. In spite of looking right and left, participants made several wrong judgments while crossing and had many near misses or sometimes missed several safe occasions to cross while talking.
* In Experiment Two, when the participant was given a cognitive task, the attention to traffic reduced significantly too. Participants also reduced the number of times they looked right and left during the cognitive task and the arithmetic task of the conversation. This indicated that attention to traffic was decreased when the brain was involved with additional tasks.
* All types of conversation in Experiment Two led to high risk pedestrian behavior and a higher likelihood of accidents.

Next Steps/Shortcomings
Authors agree that this study evaluated only a small number of people and that further studies should involve more participants.They also agree that the simulated traffic situation could be viewed differently by the participants who may behave differently in real life. Similarly subjects might be more or less distracted and attention to traffic might be more affected if the mundane call in Experiment One were made by a family member or a friend rather than an unknown person.

Researchers have found that talking on cell phones while crossing the street may serve to distract college-goers irrespective of the nature of conversation. A more complex and demanding conversation might distract a person more, leading to more risky behavior and higher chances of accidents. Authors urge, “researchers, policy makers and pedestrians” to keep the findings of this study in mind to prevent accidents. They call for “university sponsored educational campaigns” for college-goers who use cell phones on the road since persons of this age and social group commonly do so all over the world.  This campaign should receive as much importance as the one on automobile drivers who talk on cell phones while they drive, write researchers.

For More Information:
Distracted Walking: Cell Phones Increase Injury Risk for College Pedestrians
Publication Journal: Journal of Safety Research, 2011
By Despina Stavrinos; Katherine W. Byington; University of Alabama at Birmingham

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