Smartphones can lead to dumb walking

Updated: Jul 11, 2019

To avoid distracted walking, simply glancing up from your phone isn’t enough.

Photo: m-gucci/iStock

Smartphones can cause distracted walking, just as they do distracted driving. That may partly explain a recent spike in pedestrian deaths. According to a report from the Governors Highway Safety Association, pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. increased by 25% from 2010 to 2015.

Sure, if you’re looking at your phone screen rather than watching where you are going, that can be dangerous. Ditto if you’ve got music playing through your earbuds that is cranked up so loud you can’t hear an oncoming car. But even when you look up and turn down the volume, if your mind is still on your phone, you may fail to register things that should be plainly visible and audible. Scientists refer to this as inattentional blindness and inattentional deafness.

Did you see that clown?!

A 2018 study in BMC Public Health looked at how different smartphone activities affect pedestrians' perception of their surroundings. Researchers in Taipei, Taiwan, observed whether pedestrians were using their phones just before and while crossing the street at a traffic light. Once the pedestrians were across the street, the researchers asked them to take part in an interview. Among other things, the researchers asked what (if anything) they had been doing on their phones while waiting on the sidewalk or walking across the street.

Beyond that, the researchers wanted to know whether the pedestrians had noticed something unusual: a clown carrying a phone that was playing the national anthem, who had been crossing the street at the same time but in the opposite direction. Here's what they found:

  • People who failed to see the clown were said to have inattentional blindness. This was most common when playing Pokémon Go. But it also occurred with other activities, such as engaging in video calls, texting, and browsing the web.

  • People who failed to hear the anthem, played at about the loudness of ordinary conversation, were said to have inattentional deafness. This was most common when listening to music. But it also occurred with activities such as playing Pokémon Go and engaging in video or voice calls.

Nearly half of pedestrians playing smartphone games, such as Pokémon Go, failed to see a clown walking toward them as they crossed the street.

Avoiding distracted walking

It’s worth noting that simply looking away from your phone right before stepping off the curb may not be enough. Your attention could still be focused on the game you were playing, the text you were sending, or the conversation you’re still having — and not on the bus that's headed in your direction.

Especially around traffic, it’s best to put your phone in your pocket, backpack, or purse while walking and keep it there until you reach a stopping point. You’ll not only be safer. You’ll also be free to enjoy the wellness-boosting, stress-relieving benefits of a mindful walk.

About the author

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a freelance health and psychology writer.

Key reference

Chen, P., & Pai, C. (2018). Pedestrian smartphone overuse and inattentional blindness: An observational study in Taipei, Taiwan. BMC Public Health, 18, 1342. doi:10.1186/s12889-018-6163-5