‘Distracted walking’ problem at colleges

Walking while looking at cell phones causes injuries.  (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)
Walking while looking at cell phones causes injuries. (David Armelino | The Oswegonian)

The latest public safety issue at Oswego State and college campuses nationwide is due to the emergence of today’s technology.

This issue involves many students walking around campus with their eyes zeroed-in on their cellphones or other mobile devices—completely oblivious to their surroundings—as they’re texting, checking their Twitter feeds or listening to music through headphones.

It’s referred to as “distracted walking,” and it’s a concerning trend on campus to Oswego State University Police Chief John Rossi and his department’s officers.

“With modern technology, it is pervasive throughout society these days,” Rossi said.

According to Rossi, distracted walking is defined as “walking without being aware of your surroundings, especially while using an electronic device.”

Since owning a cell phone has become very common, distracted walking has become frequent. At Oswego State and colleges nationwide, it has reached epidemic levels.

“Every person, literally, every person is walking distracted, unless they’re [talking] on the phone and they can’t look at it,” said Simone Madlin, a senior public relations major.

“It would be easier to count the times that I don’t see somebody walking and texting,” said Gregory Finger, a senior business administration major. “People are always walking and texting on their phones. Electronics have taken over our lives recently.”

While this may seem blown out of proportion, there have been causalities. They’ve been escalating every year.

According to a study published in the Accident Analysis and Prevention Journal, 559 pedestrian injuries with mobile phones occurred nationwide in 2004. By 2010, this figure nearly doubled to 1,506 injuries—an increase of 947 incidents.

(Lily Choi | The Oswegonian)
(Lily Choi | The Oswegonian)

There have been a total of 5,482 pedestrian injuries with mobile phones between 2004 to 2010, the study reported.

A study by the Pew Research Center also reported that between 2004 and 2011, 116 pedestrians were seriously injured or even killed while distractedly operating a mobile device.

The first-mentioned study stated typical mobile phone related pedestrian injuries consist of walking into traffic and being hit by a car or walking into a telephone pole, for example, while using a mobile device and thus disregarding the surrounding environment.

The categories of injuries associated with the above-mentioned figures are similar to the injuries associated with incidents such as a car accident or sports injury. The study also stated this included dislocations, contusions, fractures, concussions, sprains and lacerations, among others.

“Obviously, walking into traffic can have tragic consequences, as well as slipping and falling onto the pavement, or down stairwells inside buildings,” Rossi said. “You could also be in a position to be easy prey for a criminal waiting for an easy victim to target for a variety of crimes.”

Fortunately, Oswego State hasn’t experienced any serious incidents due to distracted walking, at this time.

“There was one person struck by a car backing out of a parking spot last semester,” Rossi said. “Luckily it was a minor injury.”

That’s not to say a serious incident isn’t always possible though.

At the moment, all University Police and the school can do to prevent any collateral damage from distracted walkers is advise students to put their phones down and pay attention when walking to class or going about their business on campus.

“We have not been enforcing distracted walking,” Rossi said. “Some officers may have mentioned something to someone who may have been walking by them not paying attention to what they were doing and was a safety hazard.”

According to Rossi, students can breathe easy because they have nothing to worry about in terms of legality. Distracted walking itself isn’t illegal.

“There has not been an effort to enforce anything,” Rossi said. “As it is not against the law to be walking while distracted.”

Students have no need for concern unless their actions disrupt the flow of traffic.

“There is [no punishment for distracted walking] unless you are obstructing motor vehicle traffic,” Rossi said.

This goes for any crime committed accidentally as a result of distracted walking, although, it is hard to think of a distracted walking scenario other than blocking traffic that could land someone in trouble, according to some students.

“There’s only so much damage you can do while walking distracted,” Finger said.

Chief Rossi emphasized that distracted driving, such as texting while driving, is the University Police Department’s primary focus when it comes to cell phone-distracted behavior.

“Driving while distracted is targeted at different times of the year using state grant-money to put several additional officers out on directed traffic patrols,” Rossi said.

Unlike distracted walking, texting while driving is illegal and receives considerably more attention from government and law enforcement compared to distracted walking.

But, when it comes to distracted walking, college campuses are ground zero.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, college students have increased rates of pedestrian related injuries because they walk periodically and regularly use their cell phones—often at the same time.

A study published in the Journal of Safety Research concluded using a cell phone while crossing a street may indeed increase the risk of injury among college pedestrians.

A part of the study conducted an experiment with college student participants to test the safety awareness of students crossing a road while using a mobile device, compared to students not using one.

The device-using group performed poorly.

The study stated as part of its findings, the participants walking while using a mobile device “left considerably less time to spare [when crossing a street].” In addition, the mobile device using participants “missed more opportunities” to cross a street and were “hit or almost hit significantly more times than when not distracted.” These participants exhibited “reduced attention to traffic.”

The researchers stated college students having a vocal conversation when crossing a street adversely affected their safety awareness as a pedestrian—distracting them as much as if they were “counting backward by threes.” This is if they’re only talking on the phone, not staring at the screen.

It seems college students are the most likely to be injured while walking distracted.

“I think it is a serious problem,” Erik Towers, a senior criminal justice major and psychology major, said. “It inhibits your ability to pay attention to your surroundings, and I think it’s a problem that is not well known about but should definitely be addressed.”

Towers also said there are distracted walking “hot spots” around campus.

“They should look at where the hot spots would be on campus,” Towers said. “There are some serious intersections that are used pretty commonly where people aren’t that aware of traffic; one of them being on the corner of Rudolph Road and Centennial Drive—the road that goes in between the Campus Center and the Shineman Center. A lot of people are distracted over in that corner.”

Other students agree the student body is teaming with students directing their attention to their phones as they walk through campus.

“I would say like 75 percent of people I see out in the quad (are walking distracted),” said Veronica DeFazio, a senior graphic design major. “They’re about 25 percent aware of their surroundings.”

“I think it’s a problem,” Madlin said. “You always see people walking and texting and looking at Twitter or Yik Yak.”

Students are uncertain how distracted walking should be addressed, if a response is necessary.

“I think it would be hard to address a situation like this just because you’re not operating a motor vehicle; you’re not operating any heavy machinery that could physically really hurt somebody,” Finger said. “If you’re running and texting I could see that being an issue. You know, you could knock somebody over. But as far as walking, if you bump into somebody it’s as simple as saying ‘I’m sorry.’ As far as addressing it, just try to encourage people to be careful and be aware of their surroundings.”

“I don’t know if you can address it,” DeFazio said. “I don’t think the school can put a rule on that.”

However, some of these students don’t believe it is a problem demanding much concern.

“I believe it’s a problem, but not a serious problem in any way, shape or form,” Finger said.

Finger said some students walking on campus are more immersed in their phone and less mindful of their surroundings than others.

“I know personally I don’t sit there and stare at my phone the entire time if I’m texting and walking,” Finger said. “Some people are very self-absorbed into their phones and they get lost in it. But for the most part I think people are pretty aware of what’s going on around them.”

UP urges students to simply pay attention to their surroundings to prevent any further incidents.