Digital Deadwalkers: Distracted Pedestrians Area a Traffic Hazard

Beth Brainard
Ex Director of NPC

We commend people who can walk and chew gum at the same time, but recent studies suggest we should give more credit to people who can walk without listening to, reading, texting, or talking on their mobile devices.

At a recent meeting I attended, a man angrily recalled an incident where he was walking on a narrow public sidewalk wearing earbuds and listening to music. A bicyclist passed him and startled him so much he “almost fell over.”

By law, bicyclists riding on a sidewalk are required to give an audible signal when passing a pedestrian, like ringing a bell or saying “passing on your left, ” but it does no good if the pedestrian is audibly impaired because he’s grooving to Pink Floyd or talking on the phone.

The angry gentleman, a pedestrian distracted by an electronic device, is what the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons dubbed a “digital deadwalker” in their campaign to raise awareness about the danger of not paying attention while walking.

A mounting body of research points to the dangers of distracted walking. According to a report by The Ohio State University, accidents involving pedestrians using mobile devices have more than tripled since 2004.


A study in the journal Injury Prevention states that, “using headphones distracts users from the task at hand, whether that means concentrating on the road and navigating traffic as a driver or keeping an eye— and ear — out for hazards. . . Headphones isolate users from their environment, cocooning them so that they’re less aware of what’s going on around them.”

Headphones and earbuds can be either noise isolating, which means they block some of the noise around you as if you had your fingers in your ears, or even more dangerous, noise canceling, which means no outside sound penetrates them.

The study found that 29 percent of pedestrians who were hit by cars or trains apparently failed to hear the warning sounds of horns and sirens – if you can’t hear those, what are your chances of hearing a bicycle bell?“

Lead study author Richard Lichenstein of the University of Maryland went on to say, ”The actual sensory deprivation that results from using headphones with electronic devices may be a unique problem in pedestrian incidents, where auditory cues can be more important than visual ones,”


People who text or read their phones while walking are proving to be just as oblivious to their surroundings as those who are listening to music and talking via earbuds. YouTube is rife with comical videos of people tripping over park benches, but there is mounting evidence of not-so-funny accidents, like pedestrians engrossed in their phones walking into the path of cars or falling into construction sites.

In London the problem has grown to such proportions that padded bumpers have been installed around the lampposts in certain parts of the city. In the U.S., cities are taking various approaches. New York City has chosen to lower the speed limits on some streets, while Fort Lee, New Jersey, has passed a law banning texting while walking.

A 2012 study from Stony Brook University in New York states that those who text while walking are 60 percent more likely to veer off their course than non-texters. Being engrossed in conversation on the phone while walking has a similar effect.

Scientists studying mobile device use call the phenomenon “inattentive blindness.” They have found that the human brain has evolved to only be able to adequately focus attention on one task at a time. In other words, when you text or talk on the phone while walking, you cannot pay full attention to both tasks.

“We were surprised to find that talking and texting on a cellphone were so disruptive to one’s gait and memory recall of [a]target location,” wrote Eric M. Lamberg, PT, EdD, co-author of the study and clinical associate professor, Department of Physical Therapy, School of Health Technology and Management, StonyBrook University.

“People really need to be aware that they are impacting their safety by texting or talking on the cellphone,” he added. “I think the risk is there.”


When the angry pedestrian at the top of this article was challenged about the soundness of his decision to wear earbuds while walking, he responded that it was “his right” to do so. Currently, he is correct.

While it is illegal for motorists and bicyclists to wear ear buds when operating their vehicles, that is not the case for pedestrians.

Florida legislators are – finally – recognizing that distracted driving is a problem, but they would be wise to broaden their debate to include the increasingly dangerous problem of distracted walking.

Beth Brainard is the executive director of Naples Pathways Coalition (NPC), a nonprofit organization that works to create safe, bikeable, walkable communities in Collier County.

For more information or to join, visit the NPC web site at or contact Beth directly at

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