Walk down any street for more than four seconds and you’ll have to dodge at least one person who has their head down texting (or playing Candy Crush, or taking selfies). It’s pretty obvious that people really suck at texting and walking. But because scientists like explaining obvious things sometimes, someone went and studied just how your walking changes while you’re playing with your phone.
Turns out that texting makes people swerve like crazy, changes posture (shockingly, your head is now down instead of up), how they take steps, and makes you walk slower than people who are, you know, looking where they’re going. Siobhan Schabrun of Australia’s University of Queensland, who conducted research into the matter, saw a similar, but less pronounced, effect when someone was simply reading a text rather than actually sending one.
It’s unclear, scientifically, exactly why people walk slower while they text. (My guess, from experience: It hurts less when you walk into a pole at a slower speed.) Schabrun hypothesizes in the study, published in PLOS One, that the “increased cognitive demand placed on working memory and executive control during performance of dual tasks, decreased availability of visual information of surroundings, or modified physical/mechanical demands associated with manipulation of the phone” are likely to blame. Sounds like people are just being a little more careful, as they should be while wandering around not looking where they’re going.
According to Schabrun, 35 percent of his study’s participants had reported “previous accidents” while walking and texting. What those accidents were is unclear, though I’m sure a far higher percentage has had to look up at some point and go “Oh sorry” before sidestepping someone else who’s also texting.
Head on texter-on-texter crashes aren’t likely to cause anything more than bruised egos, but meet up with a car and it’s a whole different story. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission found that, in 2011, more than 1,150 pedestrians were sent to the emergency room for injuries sustained while texting and walking.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that texting—both by drivers and pedestrians—could have been why pedestrian deaths rose from 4,109 in 2009 to 4,432 in 2011 (the last year for which data is available). The NHTSA has even put $2 million in safety grants up for grabs to cities who have plans to combat “distracted walking.”
It sounds silly, and, to a certain extent researching the mechanics of walking and texting definitely is silly (just don’t do it in crowded areas or while you’re crossing the street for godsake) but hey, it’s always nice to be able to tell your friend exactly why they suck at walking around.
Next time you tell someone to put the phone away, you can tell them they’ve got “greater absolute medial-lateral step deviation, increased rotation range of motion of the head with respect to the global reference frame, walk with a flexed head position, reduced neck range of motion and move the thorax and head more in-phase with reduced phase variability."
Or, you know, you can let them walk face first into that stop sign.