Distracted Walking? No, pay attention!


“Watch your step!” I have heard that warning a lot in my life, and have often been grateful for it. However, there are a lot of people out there who seem not to heed such counsel. As a result they are putting themselves at risk for the latest health hazard of the digital age: Distracted Walking.

Distracted walking

Distracted Walking can be life-threatening.

The ever increasing use of cellphones is causing more and more accidents – not only while driving but also while walking. This problem is becoming so common that it spurred the US National Safety Council to create a new category in its annual injury report. This non-profit organisation reports that pedestrians distracted by their phones are having accidents while crossing streets. Even off road they are walking into signs, walls and trees. This is causing a lot of tripping and falling.

“Distracted walking likely won’t go away anytime soon. It’s one of several public health issues, including ‘text neck‘ and disrupted sleep cycles, that have reached epidemic proportions as a result of popular new technologies.”

Alexandra Ossolar, Popular Science

In keeping with the well-known fact that most falls happen in your own home, this is where more than half the injuries from Distracted Walking occur. People are ending up in hospital because of missteps while checking email or updating Facebook in their own houses and flats.

At least at home you’re not a danger to anyone else, but when you go outside and hit the road, eyes glued to your mobile phone or tablet, you become what has been dubbed a “pedtextrian”. This socially irresponsible behaviour can cause injury to others.

Perhaps I am preaching to the converted. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons released a study showing that 78 percent of US adults agree that Distracted Walking is a serious issue. But for whom? Nearly all of these concerned citizens blame the problem on other people. Only 29 percent admitted that they do any Distracted Walking themselves.

There are moves to introduce fines for Distracted Walking. Yet there seems to be a competing approach that focuses on innocent pedestrians and drivers, rather than those causing the problem with their thumbs and feet .

Texting lane for pedestrian traffic in China

Cities in China, the US and Belgium have, half-jokingly, introduced texting lanes for pedtextrian traffic.

There are plans to lower speed limits so motorists are less likely to hit pedextrians. A New York advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, proposes adapting roads for Distracted Walking.

“The policy issue is that we have to design streets for the way people actually behave, and behavior is changing. If you’re looking at a phone when you’re walking around, that shouldn’t mean death. So we have to design forgiving streets.”

– Noah Budnick, chief policy officer for Transportation Alternatives

Street sign warning pedestrians to pay attention while walking

Do we really need a sign to tell us this?

These days there’s an app for every problem, so of course there’s an app that Distracted Walkers can download on their phones or tablets. Not to help them quit, but to help the rest of us cope with them. “Type n Walk” uses a rear-mounted camera to show you the ground in front of your downcast eyes as you move through a world you see via a video image. A transparent keyboard is superimposed over a view of your feet as you stumble along.

This Type n Walk app can be downloaded on your cellphone

The world view through the Type n Walk app.

Distracted Walking is, unsurprisingly, largely an affliction of the youth. According to research in the UK, more than two-thirds of those looking down at their devices while walking are between 18 and 24 years of age. This does not mean that older people are not guilty of such misconduct. Among mobile phone users who are 55 and older, a third are driving others to distraction with their Distracted Walking.

Surely it’s a no-brainer that the older you get the more advisable it is to Watch Your Step. Staring at a screen instead of looking at where you’re going – that’s just asking for trouble. Not only does it make you look silly, especially when you fall on your rear end, but it interferes with many of the widely endorsed principles for living a good life. Like awareness, attentiveness and focus.

seeing eye person

Will it come to this?

“Concentrate the mind on the present moment,” preached the Buddha. “Pay attention!” was the simple counsel of French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne. “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” advised American transcendalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. None of this advice can be followed if your eyes are on a screen and thus unavailable to contemplate your surroundings.

What I want to know is: what’s the motivation for all this Distracted Walking? Why is there a need to be reading or chatting or videoing while out and about? What text message or email or YouTube video is so important that it has to be read now and can’t wait until you get to where you’re going? Surely the quality of these interactions is compromised by the exigencies of your locomotion.

Veteran readers of this blog may sense what’s coming up: LITO! Lucky I’m Too Old for Distracted Walking. LITO to do all these things at once. Putting one foot in front of the other while remaining upright is enough challenge, and enjoyment, for My New Old Self. The world around me provides all the distractions I need.


Leave a Reply