Distracted Walking: Ridiculous but True

Disbelief is what I felt when I first saw two pedestrian texters walk straight into each other, head to head. So engrossed with their lives that they could not spend the time to watch where they are going? As a technologist I am always interested in the social effects of technology on society. Distracted walking shows that the vast majority of people cannot do two things at the same time, that multi-tasking is really not feasible for most people, and that this behaviour can be potentially dangerous to the person and those around them.

In my commute to midtown I have seen a girl walk directly into a wall, two texters walk into each other and many near misses, where texters have almost hit other texters as well as other pedestrians. How is this considerate to those that actually watch where they are walking? These occurences are daily and are not rare. Oh no, they are more endemic than rare, and are a negative side effect of our addiction to our personal technology.

Distracted walking is rampant and dangerous. Most people believe they are capable of carrying out multiple tasks as the same time, such as walking and texting. The reality is that they are delusional. There is a finite amount to one’s attention span which one cannot exceed. Those that try find that their attention span will quickly switch between tasks, doing none of the tasks well, but leaving the person with the feeling they can do all tasks. Such “optimization”, while interesting and innately human, can only be called “lacking” and dangerous.

Researchers say they’re not surprised that multi-tasking pedestrians run into trouble. Psychological studies that show most people can’t focus on two things at once. Rather, their attention shifts rapidly back and forth between tasks, and performance suffers.

But like a lot of drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel, pedestrians often think they’re in control and that it’s all the other fools on their phones who aren’t watching what they’re doing.

It does get worse. Texting and driving can be deadly. While people still do it, here in Toronto and Ontario it is now illegal. There is documented proof that texting and driving, and the corollary of texting while walking, are clearly dangerous. While distracted walking makes for interesting Youtube videos that go viral, it is a sad reflection on how out of touch some people are with their own physiology and human limits.

…researchers at the University of Maryland have shown that distracted walking can have dire consequences. Their study identified 116 cases, between 2004 and 2011, where pedestrians wearing headphones were seriously injured or killed. During study period, the number of cases tripled.

As The L.A. Times points out, the problem is that people don’t see the problem of walking while distracted. “Most of us think that we can walk and text just fine,” Deborah Netburn writes. Bumping into another is a risk we’re willing to take “for the privilege of telling our dinner date we are ‘here!’ three minutes before actually walking in the door.” source

Distracted walking shows a failure to understand one’s human limits. It can be deadly and for what benefit?

Addendum: Dec 13 2012 1 in 3 pedestrians distracted by cellphones, study says

Jan 23 2012: Think you’re good at multi-tasking? You’re probably not

Feb 02 2013: How our brains deal with the chaos of city life

Walking down a city street, for example, seems so simple. And so, confusing the basic act of locomotion with the hazardous scene we’re traversing, we add a smartphone to the mix.

Big mistake: “The brain has a limited processing capacity,” says Prof. Lavie, “and when it’s flooded with high information load, it shuts out any information that is not considered task-relevant. And then there’s simply no capacity left for other stimuli like the cars, people and street poles that we bump into.”

Mar 26 2013: What’s as dangerous as distracted driving? Distracted walking

Aug 19 2013: Cellphones blamed as fatal collisions by ‘distracted drivers’ up 17%

Dec 25 2013: Distracted drivers not the only menace on the road

Mar 31 2014: Texting and walking problem addressed by tech giants

Dec 02 2015: ‘Distracted walking’ a serious issue, say most, but few admit to doing it

Apr 26 2016: German city installs ground-level traffic lights for smartphone-obsessed pedestrians

Nov 04 2016: Motor Mouth: “Petextrians” proving Darwin right

Nov 05 2016: Rise in ‘petextrians,’ time change mean more pedestrian collisions, auto makers working on solution

2017 Oct 25: Reading This While Walking? In Honolulu, It Could Cost You

Honolulu has passed a law, which will take effect Wednesday, that allows the police to fine pedestrians up to $35 for viewing their electronic devices while crossing streets in the city and surrounding county. Honolulu is thought to be the first major city to enact such a ban.

2018 June 08 For Chinese Pedestrians Glued to Their Phones, a Middle Path Emerges, in Xi’an, mentions the “heads-down tribe”. 低头族 ditouzu

July/August 2018 Issue The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

Dangers of Distracted Parenting, The Atlantic Jul/Aug 2018

Dangers of Distracted Parenting, The Atlantic Jul/Aug 2018

…we have been slower to reckon with its impact on children’s cognitive development. “Toddlers cannot learn when we break the flow of conversations by picking up our cellphones or looking at the text that whizzes by our screens,” Hirsh-Pasek said…

What’s going on today, however, is the rise of unpredictable care, governed by the beeps and enticements of smartphones. We seem to have stumbled into the worst model of parenting imaginable—always present physically, thereby blocking children’s autonomy, yet only fitfully present emotionally…

If we can get a grip on our “technoference,” as some psychologists have called it, we are likely to find that we can do much more for our children simply by doing less.. Your kid will be fine. But when you are with your child, put down your damned phone.

2018 Sept 05 Put road signs on the ground to guide ‘zombie pedestrians’ glued to phones: transit advisor>/a>

2018-Oct-18 source

Pay attention while walking, your Facebook status update can wait, graphic, Barcroft/Getty Images

Pay attention while walking, your Facebook status update can wait, graphic, Barcroft/Getty Images

2020 Jul 01 Tokyo suburb of Yamato bans pedestrians from staring at smartphones while walking

2 thoughts on “Distracted Walking: Ridiculous but True

  1. Molly M

    A serious problem is that most people maintain an “it won’t happen to me” mentality, and this is one of the hardest things to change. Also, they think walking into poles, people, or walls is a bit of a joke, and don’t consider the serious risks of walking into traffic or any equally dangerous situations.

    Attempts so far have made it fairly clear that legislation is not the way to instigate change – it’s hard to enforce, and the public are not receptive. What is required is hard facts, and a sustained (confronting) public education campaign that sparks smart device users into changing their habits – that is, self-regulating.

  2. Sports Headphones

    Headphones are fine for walkers and joggers, but it is the obligation of that pedestrian to still be aware of his or her surroundings. While headset technology such as noise cancelling headphones is great – it’s great for something like airplane traveling where it’s fine to completely “tune out” to the world. If you’re in public, traversing autos and other humans, you can listen to music but still be aware of what’s going on around you.

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