Texting and Walking: Dangerous Mix

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Pedestrians walk past padded lampposts in Brick Lane in London.

You might call it an avocational hazard. A recent ITN News video in the U.K. shows that some London pedestrians have become so preoccupied with e-mailing and text messaging on their BlackBerrys and cell phones that they can't make it down a city block without crashing into lampposts or trash bins. One of the most hazardous streets for "walking while texting," according to the Monty Python–esque video clip, is East London's busy Brick Lane, lined with trendy boutiques and curry shops, where people have been filmed walking head down, ricocheting off various stationary sidewalk objects. The solution? Wrap Brick Lane's lampposts with fluffy, white rugby goalpost cushions.

The video hit the Internet in early March and was met with widespread media attention ("Britain's first safe text street has been created complete with padded lampposts to protect millions of mobile phone users from getting hurt in street accidents while walking and texting," the London Daily Mail proclaimed) along with much twittering in the blogosphere about the possible expansion of the Brick Lane pilot project. But it turned out that the lamppost-wrapping scheme was just a clever public-relations ploy mounted by 118118, a British directory assistance company, and Living Streets, a well-known charity dedicated to making cities more pedestrian-friendly. In tandem with the publicity stunt, Living Streets conducted an unscientific survey of 1,000 texting Brits and found that 1 in 10 — or, potentially, 6.5 million people nationwide — had suffered injuries while texting and walking.

In a world where billions of text messages move through the ether daily — Filipinos hold the national record, having sent a billion texts per day in 2007 — it's no surprise that news of texting-while-walking accidents piqued such global interest. Though the lamppost bumpers were removed from Brick Lane after only 24 hours, the debate over such "nanny government" maneuvers and the rampant dangers of walking while texting rages on. It's a debate that New Yorkers joined last year when State Senator Carl Kruger of Brooklyn introduced a bill in Albany to combat "iPod oblivion." His bill, which was prompted by the death of two constituents who were killed crossing the street while listening to their iPods, sought to ban pedestrians from using earphones in crosswalks in New York's large urban areas. The bill languished in committee last year, but the Senator has reintroduced it in 2008.

Intuitively, the perils of texting while walking make sense. But George Branyan, pedestrian coordinator for the District of Columbia Department of Transportation, says that in most pedestrian accidents, neither text messaging nor iPod oblivion are major factors. "I am not seeing it in the crash data," Branyan says.

Most pedestrian accidents, according to Branyan, happen because people jaywalk or drivers ignore existing traffic laws — which require, for example, yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalk, heeding the speed limit and stopping at red lights. A pedestrian dies every 110 minutes in the United States, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and there has been an increase in the last few years in pedestrian deaths in Washington and other urban areas across the country, prompting governments in the D.C. metro area to launch a new advertising campaign aimed at increasing pedestrian safety. It is both "edgy and blunt," Branyan says of the radio spots and posters, which depict a violent pedestrian-car collision. The most recent pedestrian fatality in Washington was typical, Branyan says: an elderly woman who was crossing the street with the right of way was hit last week by a driver turning right on a green light, knocking her almost 50 feet.

When the Department of Transportation and the D.C. police recently conducted a two-month street-safety campaign, undercover cops at crossings and pull-over police units issued 6,000 tickets — two-thirds to drivers and one-third to pedestrians for jaywalking, Branyan said. Though Washington police, along with other law enforcement agencies, agree that the increase in text messaging endangers both drivers and pedestrians (many states have outlawed text messaging while driving, and Maryland and Virginia are considering banning cyclists from text messaging on the go), Branyan thinks that creating new laws to ban texting, particularly in urban areas where police already face many law-enforcement challenges, is less useful than enforcing laws that are already on the books.

Traffic safety engineers are developing new technologies to alert drivers to areas where pedestrian traffic is heavy at certain times of the day. St. Petersburg, Fla., for example, has installed motion detectors at some crossings where there are no traffic signals; when a pedestrian approaches, a squawkbox urges him or her to push a button before crossing, triggering high-intensity flashing lights that drivers can see some distance from the intersection. City officials credit the system with boosting driver compliance with crosswalk laws from 8% to 84%. Washington plans to install similar bilingual devices at some of its high-risk intersections. In Boulder, Colo., the city has placed audible warning devices at busy crosswalks — when a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button, lights flash and a "Use caution when crossing" message is played to remind the pedestrian to be careful.

Some communities, however, have opted for much lower-tech solutions. In County Mayo, Ireland, where rising pedestrian accidents have caused concern, elementary-school children persuaded the Irish Road Safety Authority last week to revive a popular 1970s ditty called the "Safe Cross Code," which exhorts six easy steps (including "look for a safe place" and "don't hurry") for safe street crossing. But even the classics can sometimes afford a little modernization: the Irish musician Brendan Grace has agreed to re-record the old-time jingle as a cell-phone ringtone, which can now be downloaded for a fee that goes toward supporting national traffic-safety programs.