The images above show the dome projection facility and pedestrian simulator at the BGU ergonomics complex. Left Image: A child participant viewing the scenario on the dome screen with the eye tracker strapped to his head. Right Image: A perspective of a participant facing the dome.
Source: Courtesy of BGU

As millions of kids head back to school, a new study is urging parents, teachers, and care providers to make sure that your children are cognizant of the dangers of using a cell phone while walking in areas where there is moving traffic. 

When I was heading back to school decades ago, the common sense pedestrian advice from my mom was, “Don’t forget to look both ways when crossing the street” and “Never charge into the street after a runaway soccer ball.” Of course, these adages still hold true. But, times have changed. The omnipresence of digital mobile devices and the skyrocketing incidence of cell phone related pedestrian injuries have created a 21st-century public health concern for people of all ages and walks of life.

Cell Phone Conversations Impair a Child's Ability to Cross the Street Safely

Using a state-of-the-art walking simulator, researchers have determined that a child’s ability to safely cross the street during a cell phone conversation is hindered much more dramatically than it is for an adult.

The pedestrian walking dome simulator consists of a 180° spherical screen aligned with a highly accurate three-projector system large enough to entirely immerse a participant within its circumference, as seen in the images above. This simulator enables researchers to measure pedestrian reactions and track their eye movements in various virtual-reality scenarios.

The study, "Cell Phone Conversations and Child Pedestrian’s Crossing Behavior; A Simulator Study” will be published in the November 2016 issue of Safety Science.

This study was conducted at the BGU Virtual Environment Simulation Laboratory, which is one of the world's most sophisticated traffic research facilities. Lead author, Professor Tal Oron-Gilad, a researcher in the BGU Department of Industrial Engineering and Management, said in a statement, "Although many children carry cell phones, until now, the impact that cell phone conversations have on children's street-crossing behaviors hasn’t been thoroughly examined.”

Statistically, school-age pedestrians are involved in fatal and severe road crashes at an alarming rate. Luckily, we have crossing guards near major school bus stops and intersections for this reason. But, children need to be educated about the risks of using a cell phone while walking, talking, texting, or doing anything else on a mobile device. 

This simulator experiment was conducted in a virtual city environment with 14 adults and 38 children (11 children aged 7–8; 18 aged 9–10 and 9 aged 11–13). All participants were subjected to various road crossing scenarios paired with a pre-determined type of cell phone conversations. Some conversations were more cognitively demanding than others. The subjects were instructed to press a response button whenever they felt it was safe to cross the street, while the researchers tracked their eye movements throughout the entire process.

The results showed that all age groups' crossing behaviors were affected by cell phone conversations. However, children were more susceptible to cell phone distractions. The good news is that the ability to make better street crossing decisions improved with age. As Oron-Gilad explained,

"When busy with more cognitively demanding conversation types, participants were slower to react to a crossing opportunity, chose smaller crossing gaps and allocated less visual attention to the peripheral regions of the scene . . . It is important to take those findings in account when aiming to train young pedestrians for road safety and increase public awareness with children going back to school."

Conclusion: Using a Cell Phone While Walking Is Dangerous for People of All Ages

Source: spinetta/Shutterstock

We all know from life experience and common sense that talking, texting—or playing Pokémon GO with your eyes glued to a smartphone screen—as you're walking around jeopardizes any pedestrians’ ability to safely cross the street. Previous research has shown that a pedestrian's visual attention distribution changes significantly when someone is walking while engaged in a cell phone conversation, regardless of age.

Have you ever had an accident or mishap while walking and using your smartphone? I learned the hard way about the distracting dangers of crossing the street while talking on a cell phone one night when I was hit by a bicycle and almost suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from the collision. 

A few years ago, I was clobbered by a bike delivery person cruising down 10th St. in the West Village of Manhattan, which is a one-way street. The cyclist was barreling along this cross-town thoroughfare going full speed with a basket full of take-out food attached to his handlebars. Yes, he was in a bike lane. But, he was going the wrong direction. 

This accident was my fault, too. First, I was blabbing on my cell phone. Second, I was jaywalking in the middle of the block and wasn't in a crosswalk. Yes, I looked to see if any traffic or cyclists were coming from the correct direction. But, I didn't look both ways and darted out from between two parked cars into the dark and tree-lined street. Of course, the biker had no time to respond. BAM! Both of us were face down on the ground in a millisecond. He was wearing a helmet but I hit my head on the ground really hard. I was lucky not to suffer a concussion. 

This personal experience confirms the findings of the latest pedestrian simulator study. If I hadn't been talking on my cell phone, my peripheral vision wouldn’t have been blocked. I also wouldn't have been engrossed in a distracting conversation, and would have had my antennae up to see and hear the biker coming down the street in the wrong direction. 

Hopefully, spreading the word about the latest empirical findings on the risks of children walking—and using a cell phone simultaneously—will keep everyone safe this fall as they head back to school.

The latest research also serves to remind us all to keep our eyes and ears focused on where we're going instead of distracted by our smartphones at times when your body is in motion and you're vulnerable to collisions and other avoidable accidents. 

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

The Athlete's Way ® is a registered trademark of Christopher Bergland.

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