From an ergonomics point of view, divided attention is bad news. Mistakes and danger lurk in distractions, and studies show cell phone use behind the wheel is particularly distracting. It appears from two recent studies that chatting on a cell phone while walking across a street is also foolhardy, and that the risks are greater for older pedestrians.
Researchers at the University of Illinois (U of I) Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology studied participants crossing a virtual street while talking on the phone or listening to music. They report that the music-listeners were able to navigate traffic as well as the average unencumbered pedestrian. Users of hands-free cell phones, however, took longer to cross the same street under the same conditions and were more likely to get run over. For older cell-phone users, particularly unsteady ones, the odds of becoming a traffic casualty were even greater.
In the first study, published in the journal, Accident Analysis and Prevention, the researchers found that college-age adults who were talking on a cell phone took 25 percent longer to cross the street than their peers who were not on the phone. They were also more likely to fail to cross the street during a simulated 30-second “walk” signal than their peers, who were able to finish crossing in time.
The second (as yet unpublished) study gave adults age 60 and above the same tasks, and included some participants who had a history of falling. The differences between those on and off the phone were even more striking in the older group, said psychology professor Art Kramer, who led the research with psychology professor Jason McCarley and postdoctoral researcher Mark Neider. “Older adults on the phone got run over about 15 percent more often” than those not on the phone, he said, and those with a history of falling fared even worse.
“Walking is pretty automatic, but actually walking in environments that have lots of obstacles is perhaps not as automatic as one might think,” Professor Kramer added.
While none of the students were "hit" by cars in the virtual environment, researchers said that might not have been the case if the subjects had been under the real-world pressure of having to be somewhere at a certain time, forcing them to rush while facing multiple distractions.
Postdoctoral research Neider, pointed out in a U of I statement that in the real world, people are often in a rush. “They run around like ants marching in New York. Everybody has to get somewhere and they have to be there five minutes ago. It’s possible that when you are under this sort of pressure you are more likely to take higher risks in that situation and when you talking on a cell phone you may have problems."
He advised pedestrians talking on a cell phone to hold the chat while they cross the street.
Source: University of Illinois