Surfing Internet, crossing street will likely lead to wipeout

UAB study finds college students surfing mobile Internet while crossing street more than twice as likely to be hit or have a close call.

University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) research, published online in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, has found that college students crossing the street while surfing the Internet on a cell phone are more than twice as likely to be hit or have a close call as when they crossed the street undistracted.

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The research, co-authored by Katherine Byington, Ph.D., and David Schwebel, Ph.D., associate dean in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, also reveals that the students looked away from the street for an average of 36 seconds of every minute they waited to cross while distracted, but they looked away for less than one second with no distractions.

“Even though the participants waited longer to cross while distracted, giving them more time to decide on a safe crossing gap, the longer wait did not increase their likelihood of crossing safely,” said Byington.

Byington and Schwebel studied 92 participants recruited from introductory psychology classes at UAB. Participant ages ranged from 17 to 25 years, with a mean age of 19.05. The participants were 74 percent female, 41 percent Caucasian and 46 percent African American. Each participant owned a cell phone with a 3G or faster Internet connection and accessed the Internet from their phone at least five times per week on average.

The students participated in a single lab session where they crossed a virtual street environment 20 times: 10 times with no distractions and 10 times while completing an email-driven scavenger hunt. The hunt required accessing the Internet for answers to requests such as “Find the forecasted high temperature for Chicago tomorrow,” and “What is the current number-one song on iTunes?”

The Pew Research Center recently found that 66 percent of Americans ages 18-29 own smartphones. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCICP) Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS), 45,016 Americans, or 123 people each day of the year, were injured crossing the street in 2011. Schwebel has researched pedestrian safety in the UAB Youth Safety Lab in the Department of Psychology since 2000. He said actual injury rates in the U.S. are declining, but injuries attributed to mobile phone use are rising.

Read more: Listening to music worse than texting for pedestrians

“We know that mobile phones cause more injuries than they prevent or save,” says Schwebel. “These are critical devices for many to negotiate work and school assignments, but it does also cause danger, such as increased injury risk when mobile phones are used at the wrong times.”

The study participants were also asked to complete a self-report questionnaire about their mobile Internet habits. Nearly half, 47.3 percent, said they used the mobile Internet between eight and 16 times a day, while more than a quarter, 27.5 percent, said they go online via cell phone at least once per waking hour. Half of the sample said they use the mobile Internet while crossing the street at least sometimes, and nearly 20 percent say they do so often or more than often.

The students were then asked why they chose to use the mobile Internet while crossing the street. Social issues dominated the responses, with 23.9 percent saying they want to see what their friends are doing on social media, and 17.4 percent saying they need to read or respond to emails and other messages “that may be important.”

“I was surprised that the most common choice for participants to engage in distracting and risky behavior crossing the street was not due to necessity, but simply for entertainment,” Byington said.

Vivian Friedman, Ph.D., a clinical child-adolescent psychologist in the UAB Department of Psychiatry, said social issues are most salient for teens, and that making plans with peers is a top priority. She also said there is a reason these young adults continue to troll the information superhighway while they stroll across the street, even though they know this behavior is unsafe.

“Teens typically feel invincible,” said Friedman. “They are so far from death by old age that death potential is not in their awareness.”

Byington said there is an urgent need for public awareness about the risks of distracted pedestrians. In September 2012, New York City stenciled the word LOOK! in 110 crosswalks in an effort to catch the attention of mobile device users staring at their phones . In May 2011, Honolulu Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi sponsored Bill 43, which would have made it illegal to use a “mobile electronic device while crossing a street or highway,” had it passed. It would be difficult to enforce such an ordinance, much like it is difficult to enforce texting and driving bans. Even so, Byington believes formal laws would increase pedestrian awareness and reduce this dangerous behavior.

Development of the virtual environment used by the UAB researchers was supported by the UAB Injury Control Research Center through a grant from the NCIPC and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a cooperative agreement with the Federal Highway Administration. The project was also supported in part by an award from the National Institutes of Health Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development.

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