Cellphones: Texting While Walking Is Causing People to Hurt Themselves

A teenager died after using her cell phone in the bath. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Should other countries copy China and adopt separate pedestrian walkways for people using cellphones? That's one possible conclusion to draw from a study that suggests using your cell changes the way you walk.

The study, led by scientists at Anglia Ruskin University in England, fitted subjects with mobile eye trackers to monitor their gaze, and motion analysis sensors to track the way they walked, and sent them off to navigate their way over an obstacle while writing a text, reading a text, talking on the phone and while not using a phone at all.

They found that people who were using a phone were less attentive toward the obstacle before them: they looked at it for up to 61 percent less time compared to those who didn't use a phone. At the same time, their walking style became more cumbersome: as they approached the obstacle, they adopted "a cautious and exaggerated stepping strategy." Walkers moving while writing a text—the most disruptive activity—raised their lead foot 18 percent higher and moved it 40 percent more slowly.

The research is important because it may help explain the link between using a phone while walking and personal injury. The study notes that 78 percent of cellphone related injuries listed in the U.S. National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) for emergency departments between 2000 and 2011 were the result of falls.

"Our findings indicate that phone users adopt a cautious approach when faced with fixed objects on the ground. Accidents are likely to be the result of objects suddenly appearing that phone users were not aware of, for example other pedestrians or vehicles," lead author Matthew Timmis, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the U.K.'s Anglia Ruskin University, said.

"China," Timmis continued, "has already started segregating footpaths with special lanes for those using their phones. Initiatives are also being introduced in a number of European countries to place fixed warnings on the ground to alert pedestrians to the presence of roads and tram tracks. These could help to reduce future accidents."

In Chongqing, China, in 2014, city authorities designated a "cellphone lane" for people who use their phones while walking, The Guardian reported.