Back in 2010, in this space, I described my near run-in with he whom I dubbed “Scooter Boy.” This yutz was driving down a busy road in Florida on, you guessed it, a scooter, the handlebars of which were unsullied by human contact. Because both of his hands were busy texting on a smartphone. To add insult to his inevitable injury, earbuds blocked up the auditory appendages on the sides of his helmetless head, to further insulate him from sensory awareness of his dangerous reality.
I was recently reminded of the distracted adventures of Scooter Boy when I saw a study that showed just how far we have come as a culture in our attempts to be preoccupied as we move through space. The research paper in question found a whopping recent increase in emergency room visits for injuries sustained because people were fiddling with a cell phone while—let's not tiptoe around the issue here—walking.
The authors of the report, “Pedestrian Injuries due to Mobile Phone Use in Public Places,” used data from 100 U.S. hospitals to approximate the numbers for the entire nation. In 2004 an estimated 559 people had, in one scenario, whacked themselves hard enough on a telephone pole to need emergency room treatment. By 2010 the number of walkers who had to finish that last text in the ER had likely topped 1,500, according to the study, which appeared in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention.
During the same time period, the total numbers of pedestrians who wound up in emergency rooms actually decreased. Cell phone–related pedestrian injuries are thus doing yeoman's work in keeping our ER docs in business.
Now sit down while you read this next part, especially if you're reading on a smartphone: it turns out that males between the ages of 16 and 25 were the group most prone to the injuries discussed in the report. I was once in that cohort, with all its negative health sequelae. Fortunately, I was cured (of the age part) by that great healer, time. Now I text in a recliner, as nature intended.
In fairness, young people whose brains have not yet completely congealed merely represent a plurality of smartphone-pedestrian injuries. I know of a prominent scientist—a really big cheese, a whole wheel of Gorgonzola—who tumbled down the stairs while screwing around on a phone and wound up hospitalized. This person (who will remain nameless to protect my sources) knows all too well that whether you are using an iPhone, a Galaxy, a Droid or a Jitterbug, force equals mass times acceleration.
Experts expect the injury toll related to phones to keep rising. “If current trends continue, I wouldn't be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015,” said Ohio State University's Jack Nasar, a co-author of the study, in a press release. And he thinks that the official numbers are probably underestimates of the true injury rate because not everyone who gets hurt goes to the hospital and not everyone who goes admits the real reason that they walked into a fire hydrant.
Moreover, the report tracked only pedestrian incidents outside the home. So it wouldn't count if you wound up in the ER because you were playing Angry Birds in your living room and tumbled over the ottoman Dick Van Dyke–style. (If that reference is about as relevant to you as the Ottoman Empire, it's on YouTube. For the Ottoman Empire, see Wikipedia.)
So what can we do to mitigate the risks posed by these insidious devices? Nasar thinks we have to change our societal attitudes about phone use. “Parents already teach their children to look both ways when crossing the street,” he said. “They should also teach them to put away their cell phone when walking, particularly when crossing a street.”
Or, as an acknowledgment of how we use the gadgets, maybe we could just stop calling them smartphones.