The latter, listening to music while crossing the street, is more hazardous than texting or talking on the phone, says new research from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that quantifies the dangers of distracting activities; the results surprised even the researchers.
“Your brain has to process much information to cross a street safely,” says David Schwebel, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Youth Safety Laboratory. “The car on your left — how fast is it going, how far away is it and is it accelerating or decelerating? Same for the car on your right. And in addition to that you have to think about the width of the road and how quickly you can cross that distance.”
Schwebel recently put distracted pedestrians through the paces in his virtual-environment lab that simulates cars moving in multiple directions. Subjects were asked to cross a two-lane road while cars drove along at 30 mph. More than 125 students were tested without distractions, while texting, while talking on a cell phone and while listening to music with ear buds.
Some of the findings, published online in Accident Analysis and Prevention, were expected. People talking on the phone were twice as likely to be hit as those with zero distractions – 12 percent compared to 6 percent. People texting were twice as likely to be hit as those talking, up to 25 percent.
But Schwebel, who has performed many pedestrian safety studies, was stunned to find that one in three people listening to music with ear buds failed to cross the street safely.
“The driving literature suggests that listening to the radio while driving is not particularly dangerous. We found that listening to music while crossing the street is dangerous, and I did not anticipate that,” says Schwebel.
“The big thing with music is that your ears are distracted. You are listening to the music — and not listening to the traffic,” Schwebel says. “I suspect that we use our ears quite a bit more than we realize to safely cross the street.”
So what should we do?
Schwebel offers three potential solutions: put devices away, build pedestrian bridges or enact legislation. He also argues against the latter two. He says legislation is unlikely: “There are no laws against drunk walking, so I can’t see a law against distracted walking being passed easily.” And bridges are too expensive to place on every corner.
We live in a complex world where technology gets more complicated each day. The solution is simple: Turn the devices off when you cross the street.
“We are going to continue to see distracted pedestrians and distracted drivers, and it is going to influence our safety on the roads. And it is not going to be in a good way,” Schwebel says.
Consider this: this past year, for the first time in four years, pedestrian deaths rose, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.