Distracted Walking Injuries on the Rise

Posted January 24, 2012 in Personal Injury by

Your parents probably taught you to look both ways before crossing the street. But the growing proliferation of cell phones and other handheld electronic devices means that more and more people are looking in neither direction when they step out in traffic, and wearing headphones only increases the sensory deprivation. Distracted walkers have an annoying habit of getting in the way of traffic or other pedestrians, but worse, a new study finds, sometimes they end up in the hospital—or dead.

  • Study finds 116 deaths or injuries from headphone-abetted collisions
  • Liability unclear in distracted walking cases
  • No state laws exist regulating walking while phoning


Death by Headphone

A recently released study by the Injury Prevention publication, part of the British Medical Journal, found that 116 people have been killed or injured in the United States since 2004 in collisions between people wearing headphones and vehicles—cars, and, even more frequently, trains. In nearly a third of the cases studied, the vehicle sounded a warning, which went unheeded, presumably because headphones were blocking out outside noise. Over two thirds of victims were males and under the age of 30.

The Injury Prevention study isn’t the first time distracted walking has been the subject of inquiry. A New York Times story from 2010 found that over 1,000 patients visited emergency rooms in 2008 after injuring themselves while walking and phoning, a number that had doubled each of the previous two years. With the rise of smart phones, that figure is likely to have increased again since 2008.

The Times lists some examples that might be considered humorous, as long as you aren’t the injured party:

“Examples of such visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.”

The most famous distracted walking case to date occurred last January, when YouTube hero Cathy Cruz Marrero was caught on camera toppling into a mall fountain while sending a text message. Marrero considered suing the mall after her accident, until reports of her long history of retail theft came to light and she quickly ducked out of the spotlight.



Who Can I Sue?

“It’s remarkable to me that people will jaywalk at an angle with their back to traffic, with headphones on or texting away,” says David White, a partner at Massachusetts personal injury and medical malpractice firm Breakstone, White & Gluck. “The burden on drivers is tremendous to avoid accidents with people like that. I wish people would be a little more careful.”

Attorney David White

The potential dangers were illustrated in a 2009 Western Washington University study, in which only 25 percent of people using a phone while walking across campus noticed a man wearing a “purple-and-yellow clown costume with polka dot sleeves, red shoes and bulbous red nose” riding around on a unicycle. If you are so engaged in a phone call to not notice a clown on a unicycle, how are you going to be aware of such an everyday sight as a car in the street, even if it’s bearing down on you at high speeds?

If an accident victim were to sue in such a case, the driver might be able to sway a jury to consider the role of device usage by the pedestrian, says White. “The analysis is the same as it would be in any kind of accident— you start with the negligence of the defendant driver, who would compare the comparative negligence on the part of the pedestrian,” the attorney says. Since there aren’t any laws prohibiting headphone or mobile use while walking, the defense wouldn’t be able to get a statutory leg up, but scientific studies like the one noted above could help the case. There’s also the common sense factor. “Just take ordinary analysis,” White says, “You could not have been paying too much attention where you’re going.”


 Against the Law?

While r effort was successful. New York State Sen. Carl Kruger, a leading evangelical of distracted walking laws who has tried since 2007 to ban pedestrians from using electronic devices while crossing the street in major cities, expounds on his views in this WRGB Albany interview.

There was also a brief Internet uproar last summer after a false report that Philadelphia was going to start handing out citations for texting while walking (“There is no policy, plan or activity in Philadelphia where pedestrians are being ticketed for texting,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter’s press secretary responded to a Gawker story. “Your whack job reporter . . . needs to get his facts straight.”).

Aside from anti-jaywalking ordinances in some cities, there are few laws governing the behavior of pedestrians at all, and White doesn’t see walking while phoning laws becoming a reality anytime in the near future. “It will be a while before legislators start to pick up the pen and legislate distracted walking,” he says. “They will be perceived as meddling a little too much, even though it makes perfectly good public health sense.”

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