Distracted walking injuries quadruple in last seven years

A pedestrian looks at her cell phone while crossing the street in New York City.
A pedestrian looks at her cell phone while crossing the street in New York City.
AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

(CBS News) How many times have you seen people in the street, texting or talking on a smartphone with their head down?

They can be a serious danger to themselves and others. Now officials are trying to stop it.

This spring, in Fort Lee, N.J., Police Chief Thomas Ripoli dusted off an anti-jaywalking law that had been on the books since the 1950s. He told his officers to hand out $54 tickets to deter people from crossing the street illegally while texting. In his suburban community, located just outside New York City, 40 pedestrians have been struck by vehicles already this year.

Ripoli said, "People are texting on their cell phones and iPods and not paying attention."

A number of municipalities have tried other methods, from a no-texting ordinance at crosswalks in Idaho to painted crosswalks in Delaware, and padded lampposts in London.

Injuries to distracted walkers have quadrupled in the past seven years, according to emergency room numbers, and that's likely a low estimate because either patients don't admit a cell phone was involved or doctors don't include that sort of detail on hospital reports.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 1,152 people wound up in hospital emergency rooms in the last year for injuries caused when walking and using a cell phone or electronic device.

Safety experts say distracted walking is a growing problem. Professor David Schwebel, who studies the problem at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said, "If you're on the phone, if you're text messaging, if you're browsing the internet, our research shows that that increases your risk of being hit by a car."

Using a virtual world, Schwebel and his team can gauge response times - and human error - when crossing the street and texting.

When asked what's happening to the brain when you're texting and walking, Schwebel said, "Walking actually involves a fair amount of complexity. Our brain has to work hard to make sure we walk safely, especially near traffic. Our brain also has to work hard to text message. It has to think about who you're reading, how to respond, how to type. Brains can only handle so much. If we give the brain too much to do, mistakes can happen."