We’ve all seen them: The folks who are too busy doing everything else except paying attention to where they’re going.
On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem of distracted walking isn’t as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.
"I’ve bruised my legs a time or two because I was texting and walked into a table or something," said Caroline Harper, a Brenau University student.
"I haven’t really hurt myself, but I’ve seen other people fall off the curb or run into the wall."
Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly underreported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.
State and local officials are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves.
In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks at busy intersections urging pedestrians to "Look up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you."
Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they’re going.
As an April Fool’s Day joke with a serious message, Philadelphia officials taped off an "e-lane" for distracted pedestrians on a sidewalk outside downtown office buildings. Some didn’t get that it was a joke.
"The sad part is we had people who, once they realized we were going to take the e-lane away, got mad because they thought it was really helpful to not have people get in their way while they were walking and texting," said Rina Cutler, Philadelphia deputy mayor for transportation and utilities.
When the Utah Transit Authority adopted an ordinance barring pedestrians from using cellphones, headphones or other distracting electronic devices while crossing the tracks of its light rail system on the streets of Salt Lake City, subject to a $50 fine, the legislature refused to make it a statewide law.
Distracted walking bills in the Arkansas, Illinois and New York legislatures also went nowhere.
"There are too many other things that need attention, but policing how and when people use their cell ain’t one of them," said Bernie Preston, a Gainesville resident.
"If they had put a question about that on the ballots in July, I bet that would’ve been the one thing that Republicans and Democrats would’ve agreed on. We don’t need more laws.
"Especially not dumb ones."
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, has received reports from bus drivers and train engineers who say they nearly hit pedestrians who didn’t appear to hear them sound their horns because they were distracted by their electronic devices, said Jim Fox, the agency’s director of system safety and risk management. He said there have been several cases of people hit and killed by the authority’s trains in which it appears they were wearing headphones or using cellphones while trespassing on tracks.
"I like to listen to my iPod when I go for a run and sometimes when I’m really in the zone, I forget where I am," said James Oaks, a Gainesville resident.
"I can usually catch myself before I drift too far, but there have been times when I almost ran through an intersection and didn’t hear the car horn beeping at me."
About 1,152 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries suffered while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which receives annual data from 100 emergency rooms and extrapolates the information into a national estimate.
But that’s likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using a cellphone or other device at the time at the time they were injured, or the doctor or nurse may neglect to include the information in their report, said Tom Schroeder, director of the commission’s data systems.The cases include a 24-year-old woman who walked into a telephone pole while texting; a 28-year-old man who was walking along a road when he fell into a ditch while talking on a cellphone; a 12-year-old boy who was looking at a video game when he was clipped by a pickup truck as he crossed the street; and a 53-year-old woman who fell off a curb while texting and lacerated her face.
Researchers say they’re not surprised that multi-tasking pedestrians run into trouble. Psychological studies that show most people can’t focus on two things at once. Rather, their attention shifts rapidly back and forth between tasks, and performance suffers.
Like a lot of drivers who use cellphones behind the wheel, pedestrians often think they’re in control and that it’s all the other fools on their phones who aren’t watching what they’re doing.
Associated Press contributed to this story.