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Distracted Walking

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Distracted driving can cause crashes, injuries, and even death; it's a prevalent public issue that the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) continues to champion. But what about distracted walking? What are the consequences of pedestrians talking on the phone, texting, listening to music, or engaging deeply in conversation with the person next to them?

"Today, more and more people are falling down stairs, tripping over curbs and other streetscapes and, in many instances, stepping into traffic, causing cuts, bruises, sprains, and fractures," said Alan Hilibrand, MD, chair of the AAOS Communications Cabinet. "In fact, the number of injuries to pedestrians using their phones has more than doubled since 2004, and surveys have shown that 60% of pedestrians are distracted by other activities while walking."

AAOS infographic with statistics on distracted walking

In 2009, AAOS launched the "Decide to Drive" campaign to educate children, teens and adults about the dangers of distracted driving.

More recently, AAOS expanded its injury-prevention efforts to include distracted walking. The "Digital Deadwalkers" radio and television public service announcements (PSAs) distributed in 2015 and 2016 humorously, but effectively, highlight what can happen when pedestrians focus on anything or anyone other than the task of safely getting where they need to go.

AAOS Study on the Perceptions and Behaviors Associated with Distracted Walking

To learn more about the perceptions and behaviors associated with distracted walking, AAOS commissioned a Distracted Walking Study in 2015. The study involved 2,000 respondents nationally, and another 500 respondents in each of the following eight cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta and Seattle.

First, while 78% of U.S. adults believe that distracted walking is a "serious" issue; three-quarters of Americans say it's "other people" who walk distracted. Only 29% of respondents admit that they, personally, have an issue.

And the sense of "it's not me, it's you" cuts across a range of distracted walking behaviors:

  • Ninety percent say they see walkers talking on the phone (and 37% admit doing so themselves)
  • Eighty-eight percent engaging in conversation (vs. 75% themselves)
  • Eighty-eight percent listening to music (vs. 34% themselves)
  • Eighty-five percent using a smartphone (vs. 28% themselves)
  • Sixty-four percent generally "zoning out" (vs. 38% themselves)

Despite the obvious risks associated with distracted walking, as many respondents believe it is "embarrassing (in a silly way)" as feel it is "dangerous" (46%). Furthermore, 31% say distracted walking is "something I'm likely to do" and 22% think distracted walking is "funny," according to the study.

And distracted walking is resulting in injuries. Nearly 4 out of 10 Americans say they have personally witnessed a distracted walking incident, and just over a quarter (26%) say they have been in an incident themselves.

In addition:

  • Of those injured in a distracted walking incident, women aged 55 and over are most likely to suffer serious injuries, while Millennials (ages 18 to 34) are least likely to be injured, according to the survey, despite the younger age group reporting higher rates of distracted walking incidents.
  • Perceptions of distracted walking also differ by generation, with 70% of Millennials believing that distracted walking is a serious issue compared with 81% of individuals aged 35 and older.
  • Millennials are more likely to engage in common distracted walking behaviors: texting, listening to music, and talking on the phone.
  • Half of Millennials think distracted walking is "embarrassing--in a funny way."

Can We Walk and Talk at the Same Time?

One of the challenges in combatting distracted walking may be that many Americans are overly confident in their ability to multitask.

When asked why they walk distracted, 48% of respondents say "they just don't think about it," 28% feel "they can walk and do other things," and 22% "are busy and want to use their time productively."

Among distracted walking behaviors, 75% of respondents say they personally "usually/always" or "sometimes" have "active conversations" with another person they are walking with--making this the most common distracted walking behavior people admit to doing themselves.

Perceptions Vary by City and Region

Your perception of the issue may depend slightly on where you live. For example:

  • Among the eight markets, New York City residents were most likely to view distracted walking as a serious issue (86%), and Seattle residents were least likely to view the issue as serious (77%).
  • New Yorkers were more likely to say they personally walk distracted (39%) than were walkers living in the other cities.
  • Residents of Chicago and Philadelphia were most likely to see distracted walking as "dangerous" (49%), while those in Houston were the least likely to think it's dangerous (40%).

Other Distracted Walking Statistics

Other research studies highlight the many dangers of distracted walking:

  • Typing (texting) or reading a text alters a pedestrian's gait, speed, and walking pattern, according to a recent study.
  • Teens and young adults, ages 16 to 25, were most likely to be injured as distracted pedestrians, and most were hurt while talking rather than texting: Talking on the phone accounted for 69% of injuries between 2004 and 2010. Texting accounted for 9% of injuries during the same period.
  • Distracted pedestrians may have been a contributing factor in the 4,200 pedestrian deaths and 70,000 injuries in traffic crashes in 2010, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
  • A recent study observed nearly one-third of pedestrians at 20 high-risk intersections in Seattle listening to music, texting, or using a cellphone. Those who texted took almost two seconds, or 18% longer, to cross the intersection compared with those who weren't distracted. Those who texted were four times more likely to display at least one "unsafe crossing behavior," such as ignoring traffic signals or failing to look both ways.
  • In a recent study that looked at headphones and pedestrian distraction, of 116 reported deaths involving pedestrians wearing headphones, 68% were male and 67% were under the age of 30. The majority of vehicles involved in the crashes were trains (55%), and 89% of the incidents occurred in urban areas. Seventy-four percent of case reports stated that the victim was wearing headphones at the time of the crash.

Safety Tips

To be safe and alert when walking, keep in mind these important tips:

  • If you must use headphones or other electronic devices, maintain a volume where you can still hear the sounds of traffic and your surroundings.
  • If you need to talk to a child or the person next to you, make a phone call, text or other action that could distract you from the goal of getting where you need to go safely, stop and do so away from the pedestrian traffic flow.
  • While you walk, focus on the people, objects, and obstacles around you.
  • Don't jaywalk. Cross streets carefully, preferably at a traffic light, remaining cognizant of the pedestrian traffic flow and the cars and bikes in and near the road.
  • Look up, not down, especially when stepping off or onto curbs or in the middle of major intersections; and/or when walking or approaching on stairs or escalators.
  • Stay alert in mall and other parking lots, and on and near streets, especially during the winter months when it gets dark earlier and drivers are not as likely to see you.

#DigitalDeadwalker

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Last Reviewed

December 2015

AAOS does not endorse any treatments, procedures, products, or physicians referenced herein. This information is provided as an educational service and is not intended to serve as medical advice. Anyone seeking specific orthopaedic advice or assistance should consult his or her orthopaedic surgeon, or locate one in your area through the AAOS Find an Orthopaedist program on this website.