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Take the earbuds out and listen: Distracted walking is dangerous

If you watched the second (and last) season of “Smash,” a television show about putting on a Broadway show, you may remember the death of one of the characters. He was walking the streets of New York, singing his heart out, when he heedlessly stepped into the path of an oncoming car.

The show’s writers may not have realized how timely his death was. When that episode aired in May 2013, the editors of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention were just putting the August issue to bed. One article, “Pedestrian injuries due to mobile phone use in public places,” would catch the attention of national news outlets.

The study found that the number of pedestrian injuries related to distractions like cellphones almost tripled between 2004 and 2010. In its own recent study, Stateline has found that distracted walking injuries have increased 35 percent since 2010. To put actual numbers to that: Research shows that 2012 saw 78,000 pedestrians injured nationwide, and some estimate that 10 percent of those are related to distracted walking, particularly to walking while using a mobile device.

One more sobering statistic: According to the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting system, approximately six pedestrian deaths every year can be linked to “portable electronic devices.” Those devices include cellphones, iPods and anything else that would take someone’s attention away from the sights and sounds around him.

Policymakers are struggling to find a solution. There are awareness campaigns, of course, and some cities have instituted fines for distracted walking (San Francisco is not one of them). Other cities are lowering speed limits, especially in central business districts. The strategy may be building on more than the belief that slower speeds allow drivers more time to react to pedestrians’ missteps. It may also be rooted in the knowledge that pedestrians will not be as seriously hurt if struck by slow-moving vehicles.

But are cities reduced to thinking, “We can’t stop the reckless behavior, so we will adjust the environment to accommodate these pedestrians’ lack of care?”

San Francisco is attempting to tackle the problem. The city has earmarked $50 million — from local, state and federal sources — for the Walk First program. We’ll get into the details in our next post.

Sources:

Southwest Times Record, “ Cities, States,” Tim Henderson, Dec. 15, 2014

The New York Times, “Dangers of Distracted Walking,” Nicholas Bakalar, June 28, 2013

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