When it’s dangerous to walk and talk

It’s well established that talking on a mobile phone while driving is distracting and dangerous. But what about talking on a mobile phone while walking? After all, pedestrians can often be seen marching about town, phone clutched to their ear, blissfully disengaged from their surroundings. According to Jack Nasar and colleagues, this mobile phone induced disengagement can put pedestrians at risk when they’re crossing the road, in a way that other devices, such as i-pods, do not.

The researchers staked out three campus road crossings for two hours from midday. During this time, they observed 127 people cross the road, 19 per cent of whom were talking on a mobile phone, 24 per cent were listening to an i-pod, and the rest were device free.

The road crossing behaviour of 48 per cent of the mobile phone users was categorised as unsafe – they tended to cross the road when a car was approaching, yet they typically stopped at the roadside when the traffic had stopped. By contrast, the road crossing behaviour of the i-podders was only categorised as unsafe 16 per cent of the time – they tended to stop before crossing regardless of the traffic situation. The device free pedestrians, whose behaviour was classified as unsafe 25 per cent of the time, tended to cross when the traffic had stopped and to wait if a car was approaching.

Moreover, an earlier experiment that tested pedestrians’ awareness of unusual objects placed along a route, found people talking on a mobile phone were less likely to notice the target objects.

“Mobile phones have positive values, including use in emergencies to call for help, but we need to balance the positives with better knowledge on the ways in which mobile phone use may increase accidents and victimization,” the researchers said. Perhaps mobile phones could be designed to warn pedestrians of approaching traffic, they added.

Nasar, J., Hecht , P. & Wener R. (In Press). Mobile telephones, distracted attention, and pedestrian safety. Accident analysis and prevention.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.