Distracted Pedestrians by Digital Devices is a common cause of accident on the roadway. Distracted drivers have long been a topic of study by researchers and a target of sanction by authorities. Until recently, however, there has been relatively little notice of another increasingly distracted road user, the pedestrian. The list of research studies on driver distraction number in the many hundreds and possibly thousands. However, I can count the number of pedestrian distraction studies on my two hands – and still have fingers left over.

Below, I provide a brief overview of the limited existing research concerning Distracted Pedestrians by Digital Devices. I focus on distraction caused by cell phone use, since there is very little research specifically on distraction caused by mp3 players and other electronic devices. However, it is possible to make some inferences that go beyond the current research because they are warranted by either studies on distracted drivers or by the extensive general research literature on perception and attention.

Cell Phones
The limited current research suggests that cell phone-using pedestrians:

  • Walk slower;
  • Are less likely to notice other objects in their environment, even if they are highly salient;
  • Select smaller crossing gaps in traffic;
  • Are less likely to look at traffic before starting to cross;
  • Are less likely to wait for traffic to stop;
  • Are less likely to look at traffic while crossing;
  • Are more likely to walk out in front of an approaching car;
  • Are more likely to be inattentionally blind; and
  • Pay less attention to traffic (children);

None of these results is surprising. Attention is a zero-sum game, so the more attention paid to one task, the less available for other, concurrent tasks. This basic fact allows for some reasonable predictions. For example, “intense” conversations are more distracting to drivers, and there is no reason to believe that pedestrians escape this effect – intense, important or emotional cell phone conversations should be more distracting. The pedestrian will also likely be more distracted when increased attention must be paid to the call because the connection is poor, the background is noisy, etc. The very act of holding the phone can limit the visual field. (In fact, I was once almost hit by a driver pulling out of a driveway because her cell phone blocked her view in my direction.) Further, even simple tasks such as maintaining balance and walking require attention, so distracted pedestrians will be more likely to suffer falls. No study has examined the pedestrians during dialing or texting, but strong distraction effects are likely – you can’t simultaneously look at traffic and at the keypad.

Mp3 Players
Even in the absence of specific research, it is reasonable to believe that mp3 players cause both sensory and cognitive distraction. At the sensory level, listening to an mp3 player through ear buds, and especially earphones, masks sounds such as warnings, approaching vehicles, etc. Louder music will create more masking. Moreover, additional cognitive effects are almost certain to occur. More distraction should occur when the pedestrian is listening to a book-on-tape, etc. because the listener processes the audio stream for meaning. Music with lyrics still requires some attention, if the listener is cognitively processing the words. Instrumental music requires no linguistic processing and should cause the least distraction. However, it can still distract if the listener analyzes the music, as a musician might. The tempo and rhythm might also cause a distraction. Of course, the pedestrian will likely be highly distracted when operating the mp3 player, especially if he must look directly at it.

Smart Phones And Handheld Computers
No studies have examined distraction during the use of the Iphone, Blackberry, IPads, etc. and other devices that allow pedestrians to browse the web and to run computer applications as they walk around. These devices will almost certainly create very high levels of pedestrian distraction. It is safe to say that the number of distracted pedestrian accidents will rise rapidly sharply as these devices become more common and more capable of increasingly complex uses.

The number of pedestrian deaths and injuries is on the rise and will likely accelerate as more pedestrians use increasingly sophisticated, and attention absorbing, hand-held mobile devices. There is already discussion in some government assemblies as to whether use of such devices in crosswalks should be made illegal. Stay tuned. It looks like the Distracted Pedestrians by Digital Devices scenario is about to repeat itself.