UAB safety study aims to curb dangerous campus pedestrian texting practices

Students, faculty and staff are invited to Heritage and Campbell halls to participate in Pocket and Walk It Week from Sept. 14-18.
Written by: Katherine Shonesy
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pocket walk itDavid Schwebel, Ph.D., and Blaze prepare for Pocket and Walk It week.University of Alabama at Birmingham professor David Schwebel, Ph.D., is using pedestrian simulators to give a safe yet realistic environment to help campus walkers minimize potentially dangerous practices like texting.

UAB is promoting safe pedestrian behaviors during Pocket and Walk It Week, which begins today and will continue through Friday, Sept. 18. Throughout the week, students, faculty and staff can visit the lobbies of Heritage and Campbell halls to test their texting-while-walking skills in pedestrian simulators, which use virtual reality to recreate a street-crossing environment.

“Our campus is situated in a very busy location, with both cars and people,” said UAB Chief of Police Anthony Purcell. “It’s concerning how few pedestrians pay attention to what they are doing while crossing the street. Our hope is to raise awareness through events like Pocket and Walk It to help our campus community practice safer walking practices, and put down their phones while crossing the street.”

Pocket and Walk It will help university researchers, led by Schwebel, a College of Arts and Sciences associate dean and professor in the Department of Psychology, conduct a study funded by the National Institutes of Health that is focused on campus distracted-pedestrian practices. The study will measure pedestrian behaviors before and after the week to evaluate whether the virtual reality simulation activity, along with other campus activities, reduced distraction among campus walkers crossing the street.

The simulators, which have also been used at local elementary schools and YMCAs to teach children safe street-crossing skills, give users various traffic patterns to monitor from both directions and time their walk across the street in order to attempt to successfully complete the activity while distracted. When the users decide it is safe and traffic is clear, they step down from the platform and trigger their virtual selves to walk across the street. The users can see themselves cross, so they can learn whether or not they were safe in crossing.

“Users will actually be able to evaluate the risk of texting while walking in a realistic environment, and we can do that all virtually without the users’ actually being in danger of being hit by a car,” Schwebel said.

pocket smallClick to enlargeSchwebel developed the simulators with funding from the Federal Highway Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health as a means to address the rapidly growing problem of dangerous pedestrian practices.

In a 2014 report, Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition ranked the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area as the sixth-highest city where people walking are most likely to get killed by vehicles. Texting while walking makes crossing the street even more dangerous.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, nearly 5,000 people were injured when walking and using a cellphone or electronic device in 2013.

“If you’re on the phone, text-messaging, browsing the Internet or listening to music, our research shows that activity greatly increases your risk of being hit by a car,” Schwebel said. “Walking actually involves a fair amount of complex thinking. Our brain has to work hard to make sure we walk safely, especially near traffic. Our brain also has to work hard to text-message. It has to think about what you’re reading, how to respond, how to type. Brains can handle only so much. If we give the brain too much to do, mistakes can happen.”

A kickoff event will be held in the lobby of Heritage Hall at 2 p.m. Monday, Sept. 14, with Blaze, UAB cheerleaders and Golden Girls, representatives from the UAB Department of Psychology, as well as the UAB police department.

The simulators will remain in the lobbies of Heritage and Campbell halls throughout Pocket and Walk It Week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.