Death by distraction

Death by distraction

August 1st, 2012 in Opinion Times

This Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011 photo shows a pedestrian walking while using a phone in New York. While smartphones and other electronic devices changed popular culture by offering an ability to always stay connected, it so swiftly turned into such a compelling need that a simple walk down the street is considered wasted time.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Given the ubiquity of security and cellphone cameras, it seems that almost every event -- no matter how mundane -- is now recorded for posterity. Still, the number of Internet videos that show pedestrians plunging onto train or subway tracks or walking into traffic, fountains, utility poles or open pits is incredible. There's even a widely viewed video of a pedestrian almost colliding with a wandering bear before realizing his predicament. The common denominator? Each pedestrian shown is distracted by a cellphone or other electronic device while in a public space.

Americans have become familiar with the phrase "distracted driving" in recent years as the number of deaths and accidents tied to the use of electronic devices while behind the wheel has soared. Now, "distracted pedestrians" should be added to the national lexicon. The number of people injured while walking and talking on a phone, texting, playing a video game or listening to music or something else on headphones is growing rapidly.

Unlike distracted drivers, distracted pedestrians are unlikely to bring harm to anyone but themselves. That, however, is no reason to ignore the perils and costs related to those on foot. The risks will grow as the number of cellphones and other devices expands.

Reports of injuries -- some serious -- to distracted walkers at emergency rooms have almost quintupled in less than a decade. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, which tracks such things, reports that at least 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms last year for injuries that occurred while walking and using an electronic device. That number almost certainly is an undercount.

Some, perhaps many, of the less serious injuries simply aren't reported. Others go uncounted because some individuals are too embarrassed to tell first responders, emergency room personnel or physicians how they were hurt.

Such reluctance is understandable. Slavish attention to an electronic device is a bad habit that supersedes common sense. One should always be aware of one's surroundings. That's not possible, of course, if one is texting, chatting on a cellphone, playing a game or listening to music through headphones while walking. The result is predictable. Distraction and sensory deprivation lead to accidents, particularly to males under 30, the group most prone to use the electronic devices.

There's no ready antidote to the rising number of injuries caused by distracted walking. Legislative remedies have failed everywhere. A massive awareness campaign -- front-page stories such as the one in The Times Free Press on Tuesday or reports on national TV news -- might help. Perhaps not.

What's certain, though, is that the injury toll will rise if pedestrians continue to pay more attention to electronic devices than to their surroundings.