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Walking With Headphones: Only Dangerous Sometimes

Walking With Headphones: Only Dangerous Sometimes
REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The complexity of crossing the street in a city comes through clearly at the corner of West 42nd Street and 8th Avenue in New York City. At that spot, pedestrians heading toward Times Square usually start to cross the avenue after the uptown traffic stops. That's a mistake, because cars heading uptown have the right of way on a left-turn arrow. But the walkers go anyway, either because they don't see the sign telling them to wait for the signal, or because they see their counterparts on the south side of the intersection — who don't have to worry about the left turns — crossing at will. Typically the situation results in a frenzy of car horns and middle fingers and general congestion.

The proliferation of hand-held devices has complicated this already complicated process for the urban pedestrian. In early 2010 the New York Times reported that emergency room visits for pedestrians distracted by a phone or iPod had doubled each year from 2006 to 2008. A handful of lawmakers across the country, inspired by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's crusade against distracted driving, have turned their thoughts to protecting our crosswalks, as the AP reported earlier this year:

Democratic State Sen. Carl Kruger in New York has been trying since 2007 to ban the use of cell phones, iPods and other gadgets by pedestrians in major cities while crossing the street. The proposal would ban the use of an electronic device while crossing the crosswalk in a city with a population of one million or more. Violators would face a $100 civil fine.

The subject of distracted walking has received increased attention by cognitive researchers in the recent past as well. Their consensus finding, though still in its initial stages, is that not all electronic devices distract equally. While it might do some good to persuade walkers to avoid talking on the phone when they cross the street, listening to music seems to have little effect on their walking behavior; in fact, it may even improve it.

A recent study led by Despina Stavrinos of the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that phone conversations distracted walkers "considerably." The researchers gathered test walkers into a virtual street-crossing simulator, complete with ambient traffic noise piped into lab speakers, and measured how well they crossed while having a cellphone conversation. (The phone call was not virtual; test participants spoke with one of the researchers.)

People on the phone did look both ways as often as those who were undistracted, but this attention to traffic didn't seem to translate into safer walking. Compared to when they crossed without any distraction, people on the phone reached the other side with less time to spare, missed more opportunities to cross safely, and had more close calls. Some even got hit by a virtual car, the researchers reported in the April 2011 Journal of Safety Research. Distracted walkers had no problem considering their environment, they just failed to absorb it:

It appears as though distracted pedestrians may move their heads to look left and right before crossing, but fail to actually capture and/or process the information necessary to cross safely.

In subsequent tests, Stavrinos and colleagues compared pedestrians with cell phones to those performing either a spatial task, like describing the layout of their apartment, or an arithmetic task, such as counting backwards by three. On all the metrics mentioned above, including attention to traffic, pedestrians on their phones did just as poorly as those working on the cognitive problems. In some cases they did worse; they crossed with more time to spare doing a math problem, for instance, than they did while talking on the phone.

The problem is particularly bad for older people. In the June issue of Psychology and Aging, a group of behavioral scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, led by Mark Neider, found that older adults — people in their early seventies, on average — had an especially hard time crossing while on the phone. Older folks spent longer than young adults on considering when to cross, and when they finally did, they still made poorer decisions, beginning their walk when the nearest vehicle was closer than it had been when young adults began theirs.

The finding lends further support to the idea that phone conversations don't make pedestrians less aware of their surroundings, just less capable of processing them cognitively:

Analysis of time spent next to the street prior to each crossing, where participants were presumably analyzing traffic patterns and making decisions regarding when to cross, revealed that older adults took longer than younger adults to initiate their crossing, and that this difference was exacerbated during cell phone conversation, suggesting impairments in cognitive planning processes.

On the other hand, Neider's research group found that listening to music had no negative impact on the ability of pedestrians — young or old — to cross the street. That study was performed on a virtual simulator too, however, so it remained unclear whether the findings would translate to the real world. To escape these virtual limitations, a group of cognitive scientists led by Esther Walker of UC-San Diego recently observed pedestrians crossing the street on the campus of the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver.

In a paper scheduled for publication in the January 2012 issue of Safety Science, Walker and colleagues report that music players had no impact on a pedestrian's ability to cross the street. Women showed no difference in cautionary behavior whether or not they were listening to music, while men actually paid more attention to traffic with ear phones in than without any distraction. Considering the studies on cell phone distraction, the finding took the researchers by surprise:

Remarkably, our results revealed that the effect of PMDs [personal music devices] was opposite to what would be expected if PMDs functioned like cell phones in terms of their influence on cautionary behaviour. That is, we found that listening to PMDs either increased or did not influence a pedestrian’s cautionary behaviour, depending on gender. This supports the idea that PMDs represent a different type of distraction than cell phones, as cell phones have been demonstrated repeatedly to lead to significant reductions in cautionary behaviour.

The discovery that cell phone conversations and music have different impacts on our cognition isn't as remarkable as the researchers suggest. In fact, it's exactly what psychologists studying distracted driving have found in the past. While distractions like music or passenger conversation don't seem to have much impact on driving ability, cell phone conversations affect our "central attentional processes" in unique ways. If lawmakers ever do legislate distracted walking in cities, they should bear this distinction in mind.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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