We’re all aware of distracted driving and the dangers it can create for everyone on the road. What about distracted walking? During spring 2012, a popular online video featured a woman walking through a mall while texting. It’s nothing noteworthy until she falls into the mall’s fountain. This is a great example of distracted walking.

The woman in the video wasn’t injured, but this type of incident is becoming more common and can be dangerous, especially on a construction site. Today, videos featuring accidents such as the following aren’t hard to find:

  • A 24-year-old woman walks into a telephone pole while texting.
  • A 53-year-old man falls off a curb while texting and suffers lacerations on his face.
  • A 28-year-old man falls into a ditch while walking along a road and talking on his cell phone.
  • A pickup truck hits a 12-year-old boy who is playing a video game while crossing the street.

“We are where we were with cell phone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn’t have the data,” said John Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Although videos showing distracted walking exist, hard numbers are not widely available. The Consumer Product Safety Commission receives data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate. The commission’s data shows just fewer than 1,200 people being treated in U.S. emergency rooms last year for injuries that occurred while walking and using some type of mobile electronic device. Injuries ranged from facial fractures and eye injuries to blunt head trauma, nasal fractures, sprained ankles and foot injuries.

It is believed that this estimate is conservative because patients may not disclose the fact that they were using their cell phone or mobile device when they were hurt, perhaps because they are embarassed. So, the scope of the problem is difficult to quantify since statistics may not tell the whole story. To date, no federal entity collects such data. However, the National Highway Safety Administration collects data on pedestrian fatalities that involve individuals who are drunk or in hit-and-run situations.

“We don’t have a plan to add this factor, which is not to say it’s not a concern. We’re concerned about anyone using the roadways or the sidewalks … about their propensity for distraction,” said Ellen Martin, agency spokesperson.

These accidents aren’t simply a matter of not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Several psychological studies indicate that most individuals are unable to focus on two things concurrently. Their attention swings rapidly between the two tasks, and their performance on both tasks suffers. Although these studies didn’t focus specifically on handheld electronics and walking, the results indicate an inability to multitask.

Recently, some small studies have addressed this specific problem. The findings are consistent with the earlier psychological studies: pedestrians using portable electronics were more likely to walk unsafely into a crosswalk as a vehicle approached than those without electronics.

While the overall number of vehicle accidents is decreasing, the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities is increasing, although the cause is not clear. Since this trend appears to be growing, many municipalities are looking to deal with this problem in a variety of ways. Some are considering it more of a public health issue and are relying on education and various public service announcements, while others are turning to laws and fines.

  • The Utah Transit Authority attempted to bar pedestrians from using electronics while crossing the tracks of the light rail system, subject to a $50 fine, but the measure did not become state law.
  • On busy crosswalks and intersections, Delaware highway safety officials placed decals that read: “Look Up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you.”
  • New York tried unsuccessfully to ban pedestrians from using handheld electronics while in Manhattan crosswalks. The proposed bill included a $100 fine for violators.

Many people feel it is ridiculous to use legislation to limit the use of handheld electronics on city streets, stating, “you can’t legislate common sense.” This attitude may be true for pedestrians on a city street; however, considering how chaotic and noisy an active construction site can be, you may consider implementing such safety measures for your employees. While walking across a job site, your employees can encounter moving vehicles, holes and trenches in the ground, tools, and equipment. Add to these hazards the ever-changing nature of a job site, and your employees must be on their toes to keep safe. If banning or restricting the use of handheld electronics on the job can prevent one injury, it may be worth the challenge.