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Distracted walking: How tech devices endanger us

Distracted walking

One fallout from the rise of smartphones and other personal communication devices: a spike in accidents and deaths from pedestrians oblivious to their surroundings.

Americans are worried about about it, according to a study released in December 2015 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Seventh-eight percent of adults surveyed said distracted walking is a serious concern. Nearly as many -- 74 percent -- said other people are usually or always walking while distracted. Only 29 percent said it about themselves.

The survey also revealed a split attitude about the severity of distracted walking: The same percentage of respondents believe walking distracted is “embarrassing in a silly way” as those who believe it’s dangerous.

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Distracted walking is on the rise, whether we're tripping over curbs, tumbling down stairs or stepping into traffic. The result: scrapes and bruises, strains and fractures, and sometimes death. Emergency room visits by distracted walkers on their cell phones more than doubled in six years from 2004 to 2010, according to a study in Accident, Analysis & Prevention.

Dr. Alan Hilibrand on distracted walking

We asked Alan Hilibrand, M.D., an orthopaedic surgeon specializing in spine surgery and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, about the dangers of distracted walking and what pedestrians can do to avoid it.

Why did the academy decide to study distracted walkers?

Orthopedic doctors take care of people who break bones. Part of our mission is to keep people healthy, with strong bones, and away from trouble. It's also a growing issue because of the wide use and increasing sophistication of personal communication devices.

Talk about the difficulty in identifying what constitutes distracted walking. Would it include a mother with a baby in the stroller?

Unlike drunk driving, which can be measured and is more obvious, there are many degrees of being distracted while you’re on foot. I draw the line at any situation where you can’t hear your surroundings and you’re not looking at what’s in front of you. As a corollary, if you’re unaware of the rules of the road and you don’t follow them – such as jaywalking or crossing at a corner against the traffic – that meets the definition.

What do you think of  the “it’s you, not me” tendency among survey respondents?
They may have been more fixated on incidents of distracted walking. When someone is walking distracted, it stands out! But there may also be a bit of self deception going on.

What are a couple of good tips for those of us on foot?

If you’re doing something that takes serious attention – and I don’t mean listening to music (unless it’s so loud that others can hear it) or talking hands-free – stop walking and get out of the way of other pedestrians. If you’re walking erratically, people around you can end up running into you.

Follow the rules of the road – avoid jaywalking and cross with the traffic.

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