cifically makes cell phones so dangerous to drivers, Ira Hyman Jr., a psychology professor at Western Washington University in Bellingham, asked his students to record people’s walking patterns across the open square on campus. He found that people talking on phones were significantly less likely to acknowledge others, more likely to change direction and less aware of their surroundings.
“Our next question was, of course, ‘Well, why are they so bad?’” Hyman said. The answer, he said, is something called “Inattentional Blindness,” which occurs when cell-phone users see an unusual activity but their brains don’t process it.
Taking advantage of one student’s unicycle and clown suit, classmates asked participants if they had seen anything unusual crossing the square. About half the people walking alone, but not talking on phones, reported seeing the cycling clown, while only about 25 percent of cell phone users saw him.
“The most interesting part is that they’re surprised,” Hyman said. “They turn around to look. ‘Wow. How did I miss that?’”
For people walking in pairs or listening to music, the percentage of awareness was higher than walking alone, suggesting that it is not the noise or the conversation that distracts cellphone users; it is the phone itself that endangers pedestrians.
A 2010 New York Times article cited Ohio State University, which found that slightly more than 1,000 pedestrians visited American emergency rooms in 2008 because they tripped, fell or ran into something while using a cell phone. That was twice the number nationwide from 2007, which had nearly doubled from 2006.
And while age could also be a factor, the research is still inconclusive. Ohio State found that, of the injured cell-phone users, people under 30 accounted for about half of the emergency-room visits and people between the ages of 16 and 20 made up about a quarter.
Driven to distraction
Policymakers are now asking if laws against walking with a cell phone should exist or, more practically, could they be enforced. States from New York to Arkansas have already tried and failed to pass a number of proposals banning phone use on streets; so far, they’ve been unable to convince the public that their phones may do more harm than good.
“It is a slippery slope,” said Jason Epstein, a Seattle personal injury lawyer and the founder of Teens Against Distracted Driving. “If we give up cell phones, should we give up radio? Conversations? At what point do we draw the line?”
‘A Perfect Storm’
Epstein, who speaks to students about the dangers of distracted driving about once every other month, said he would like to see punishments for texting while driving be the same as drunk driving.
“We’ve already drawn the line in the sand that drinking and driving is unacceptable. And it has been shown that texting is just as dangerous,” Epstein said.
For inexperienced teens, he said, texting while driving is “a perfect storm.”
But teens aren’t the only ones distracted by texting. A 2010 phone survey by The Pew Research Center concluded that American adults age 18 and older are just as likely to text while driving as teens are (27 percent vs. 26 percent), and even 18 percent more likely to talk on the phone behind the wheel (61 percent vs. 43 percent).
To help promote distraction-free driving, Epstein hands out Lance Armstrong-style bracelets to anyone who takes the pledge to not text and drive, that say, “I PLDG 2 NT TXT N DRV.”
“All we can all do is make ourselves as safe as possible. Not only for ourselves, but we have a duty to the other people on the road with us to not put them in danger,” Epstein said. “It doesn’t matter what the distraction is. We should all strive to drive as distraction-free as we can.””
Where’s your head? Meanwhile, “the Fountain Lady” has now made it into the Windows Phone television commercials, which depict distracted phone users running into things and missing out on their surroundings. The slogan, “It is time for a phone to save us from our phones,” argues that their simple design will help “get you in and out and back to life,” while showing their customers finishing their task in time to avoid a collision.
The idea that the phones themselves should be responsible for protecting us isn’t unique to Windows; an iPhone application uses the camera to show what is in front of you while texting. And T-Mobile has released DriveSmart Plus, an app that can automatically block access to text messaging and send calls to voice mail when it senses a user is driving.
Though relying on technology to save us from our technology is a risk, there is no need to take it, Epstein said.
“It doesn’t matter what your hands are doing; it matters what your head is doing,” Hyman said. “Think carefully about where you are.”
¦ A student crosses the street near the University of Washington without looking up from his phone.