Walking while talking on your cell phone could get you killed. iPod? No problem

It usually happens like this. I'm walking across town while talking on my cell phone when I fail to notice the traffic light has changed. My foot leaves the curb and is about to step into the roadway when a hand -- belonging to a friend or sometimes a complete stranger -- jerks me out of the street back onto the sidewalk.

Near death (or just injury that occurs when steel plows into flesh) averted, barely. I've been called absentminded, and this has happened, I'm embarrassed to admit, what, a dozen times? But now it seems I may have science on my side.

Two new studies suggest that talking on a cell phone while walking significantly impairs our ability to safely cross a street. Older adults over 65 yapping on a cell were run over -- in a simulated environment -- 15% more often than those who weren't talking on the phone, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "So walking and talking on the phone while old, especially, appears to be dangerous," says psychology professor Art Kramer, who led the research.

A separate study of younger adults -- 18 to 30 -- found that those who were on their mobile phones took an average of 1.5 seconds to 2 seconds longer to cross a virtual street in which there were moving images of "passing cars" compared with people who weren't talking on their phones.

The big difference between the two studies? The younger phone talkers weren't any more likely to get hit than those not on the phone. But those on the phone were also less likely to cross the street in the required 30 seconds than those not on the phone (hands-free devices were used). Cars were moving at up to 55 miles per hour in both directions, and subjects had 30 seconds to "cross the street" on a treadmill synced to the virtual reality environment.

More Careless, or More Careful?

"It could be that they are missing safe crossing opportunities that they may have recognized if they weren't talking on their cell phones," says the study's lead author Mark Neider, a post-doctoral associate. "If you want a more positive argument, it could mean they are being more conservative or are trying to be more careful" because they are talking on the phone.

That may not be a big deal in a simulated study for which 36 students were paid $8 per hour. But in real life, if you're late for work or to pick up your kid at day care, the cell phone could become a real hazard. "In these cases, any impairment in the ability of that pedestrian to recognize and act on safe crossing opportunities is likely to increase the chance of an unfavorable crossing outcome, including pedestrian-vehicle collisions," the study says.

One interesting finding: People who were listening to music while crossing had similar safety rates to people who were "undistracted," or not talking on cell phones, the researchers say. "Music is a passive experience," says Neider. "You don't need to pay attention to that."

Having a phone conversation is a different story, he adds. "When you are talking on a cell phone, you need to monitor what the other person is saying, which is comprehension, and think of what to say, which is production. It may be a more challenging task."

61,000 Accidents Involving Pedestrians

Numerous studies have already found that driving while talking on a cell or while texting can be as dangerous as driving while drunk. But the University of Illinois studies may be the first to examine cell-phone use on pedestrian street-crossing behavior. More than 255 million Americans now have cells, the study says. There are 61,000 accidents a year involving pedestrians and motor vehicles, but it's unclear how many are related to cell-phone distractions.

The study involving younger cell phone users was published in the most recent issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention. The second study that looks at mobile use and pedestrian safety in older adults is still in progress, Neider says. "The study does seem to suggest that older adults are more likely to get hit by a car when crossing the street than older adults who aren't talking on the phone," he says.

Of course, skeptics might say that the virtual environment isn't close enough to the real world -- and that the results might be different if played out on actual, live streets. But Neider says researchers took great pains to make the virtual environment as accurate as possible. "It's not the real world, and that merits consideration," says Neider. "But I think it offers up the possibility of imitating the real world, while at the same time allowing us to manipulate certain factors in a research context. We wouldn't want to put people on the street and face them with real cars."

Of course, that's what you and I do every day. Next time my cell rings while I'm walking down the street, I may think twice about answering it.

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