Don't be a 'text zombie'

At Tokyo's Shibuya Crossing: When many people take to city streets at the same time, the risks of texting-while-walking accidents rise.

Why texting while walking accidents are on the rise worldwide.

The next time you leave the office for a bite to eat at lunchtime, bear in mind there’s an increased chance you might not make it back in one piece.

Lunchtimes – along with morning and evening rush hours – are the riskiest for accidents resulting from texting while walking, because that’s when most people take to city streets at around the same time. Many are simultaneously trying to shop, catch up on social media, twitter, text friends or maybe just carry on working via their mobiles.

And it’s becoming a costly health hazard.

Earlier this year, the University of Queensland studied the behaviour of 26 people who were asked to walk 8.5 metres and type a nine-word text. All participants slowed down compared to walking without a phone, their heads and necks took on a rigid posture, many swerved and lost their balance, while others lost focus of their surroundings.

As one of the researchers, Dr Siobhan Schabrun put it: “They walk a little bit more like a robot.”

No surprise, then, that one in three of the participants admitted to previously falling, tripping or colliding with someone or something while texting.

It’s become a worldwide problem. In London, things are so out of hand that along one major city, street bumpers have been placed on lamp posts to prevent pedestrians from walking into them.

Tens of thousands of pedestrians are treated in emergency rooms every year in the US, and according to Dietrich Jehle, professor of emergency medicine at the University of Buffalo, as many as 10 per cent are because of accidents involving smartphones.

Indeed, an Ohio State University study released last year found that injuries involving smartphone use while walking more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 across the US. In response, lawmakers in at least two American states have tried to ban people from using their phones while walking the streets, though the moves were voted down.

"Injuries involving smartphone use while walking more than doubled between 2005 and 2010."

Some mishaps are comical, as videos on YouTube show. In California, a man engrossed with his smartphone looked up just in time to narrowly miss walking straight into an escaped bear.

Then there’s the one of an unfortunate women in a shopping mall who didn’t see the fountain in front of her – until it was too late.

But the consequences of paying more attention to your phone than what’s going on around you can also be dire. In 2011, a teenager in Melbourne, Australia died after falling from a parking garage while texting a friend.

Last year in New Zealand, no fewer than 35 people made a claim to the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) as a result of sustaining significant injuries while texting. According to ACC, 90 per cent resulted from trips, falls or walking into things while texting.

As is the case in many other places around the world, there is no obligation on claimants to report the reason for their injury to ACC.

Under-reporting of accidents caused by texting is likely rife, says Jehle, because people are reluctant to supply information when it involves embarrassing behaviour.

So, what would really happen if 1500 people, all using their smartphones, were to walk across a major city intersection at the same time? According to a computer simulation by Japan’s top carrier, NTT Docomo, which has gone viral on the internet, just 36 per cent (547) would make it to the other side.

The video, produced in partnership with Aichi University of Technology, is part of a marketing campaign to scare the Japanese public off using smartphones while walking. “DANGER: Texting While Walking” reads a title at the end of the video.

According to Docomo, one in five people who use smartphones while walking becomes involved in an accident or is otherwise injured.

In the simulation, each pedestrian was 160cm tall and weighed 58kg, the median for Japanese, and walked across Tokyo’s famous Shibuya Station at speeds of three, four or six kilometres-per-hour. It assumed they would have a vision range one-twentieth that of normal, meaning they could not see obstacles until they were just 1.5 metres away.

In the 46 seconds they had to cross before the signal turned red, there were 446 collisions leading to 103 cases of falling and 21 dropped phones.

It’s not the first time Docomo has tried to warn people of the dangers of texting while walking. Last summer it bought advertising space at the entry and staircase of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, displaying signs with the prophetic words:

“Walking while using a smartphone is dangerous (but those people probably didn’t see this announcement).”

Is this an answer?

Although similar “Type n Walk” functions have been around for a while, Apple now claims to have gone one step further, having recently secured the patent for what it dubs “transparent texting” technology.

Basically, it works by activating a mobile device’s rear-facing camera to display, in the background of whatever app’s being used, video images of what is in front of the pedestrian – essentially making the phone transparent.

In its application to the US Patent and Trademark Office, Apple stated: “Consequently, the device’s user is less likely to collide with or stumble over an object while participating in a text messaging session.”

We’ll have to wait and see about that.

Mark Phillips is an Asia-based writer and former editor of INTHEBLACK, Marketing and Franchising magazines in Australia.

October 2021
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