Distracted walkers can pose problems for other people and themselves. | Benjy Egel/Mustang News

The pattern repeated like clockwork. On the corner of California and Foothill boulevards, clusters of students walked to and from campus at least every five minutes. In every cluster, at least one pedestrian would have both earphones in and another would be looking down at their phone.

It’s been more than a month since business administration senior Tom Stone was fatally struck by a train while crossing the tracks at that very intersection. Stone was reportedly looking down at his phone with both earphones in when he was hit. By the time he looked up, it was too late, according to witnesses.

Distracted walking is proving to be riskier than previously thought for pedestrians across the nation. The California Office of Traffic Safety ranked San Luis Obispo the fourth-most dangerous medium-sized town for pedestrians in 2013.

“Pedestrians need to pay as much attention to their surroundings as a vehicle, because they’re the ones who are going to lose that battle,” San Luis Obispo Police Department Lieutenant John Bledsoe said.

Researchers from all over the U.S. are conducting more studies on accidents involving distracted pedestrians. Their findings revealed that even traveling by foot can become more dangerous when cell phones are involved.


A study published by Ohio State University researchers in 2013 found that while the total number of pedestrian accidents in America decreased between 2004 and 2010, the number of accidents involving pedestrians using cellphones roughly tripled. The most common age for these accidents was 16-25, with men at a slightly higher risk compared to other genders.

Another study put people in a virtual reality environment to explore the dangers that distractions can pose for pedestrians. It was found that listening to music and/or texting while walking significantly increased the subject’s chances of getting “hit,” due to not being as aware oncoming danger.

Psychologists call this phenomenon “inattentional blindness,” when someone fails to recognize unusually, noticeable stimuli that is clearly present.

“When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so,” MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller said.

In 2009, researchers at Western Washington University were determined to see how distracting phone conversations could be. A unicycling clown decked out in bright colors with a red nose was set up in the square to see how many cell phone users would notice. A whopping 75 percent of passersby claimed to not see anything unusual in the plaza.

“These distractions are pretty powerful and taking up so much of our attentional mechanisms that the big stuff isn’t getting through,” neuropsychologist and Cal Poly psychology professor Laura Freberg said. “That’s dangerous; I don’t think we would have expected that.”

Legislators are not taking this evidence lightly. A bill was introduced to the Hawaii House of Representatives in February that would ban people from using mobile electronic devices while crossing streets, roads and highways. In 2007, New York State Senator Carl Kruger brought up a proposal to slap pedestrians with a $100 fine for using electronics in intersections. The bill did not pass.

Arkansas tried banning the use of both earphones while walking in 2011, which also did not pass. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons took a slightly different approach producing its own social-awareness advertisements.

On a busy urban street, several citizens show horror on their faces as the camera moves down the street. A mother shields her daughter. People flee the sidewalk. A yellow taxi abruptly halts. They refer to the ominous terrorizing monster as a “digital deadwalker.” In reality, it is a man looking down at his phone. Distracted citizens are the most dangerous because “they’re not watching out for you.” Cut to black.

YouTube video

A 2015 study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery found that 88 percent of 2,008 U.S. survey respondents say they often see others walking while listening to music and 85 percent say they see others walking while using their smart phone. However, only 34 percent claim they also do the former and only 28 percent admit to doing the latter.


Foot traffic near California Boulevard is most present in the mornings and evenings. On one afternoon last quarter, biological sciences sophomore Brittany Lore was using her earphones to de-stress from her midterm as she walked back home from campus.

“Sometimes it’s nice to listen to music, most of the time I’m studying so I don’t get to,” Lore said. “Music is kind of like an outlet.”

A pedestrian is injured every 8 minutes in the United States. The aforementioned virtual reality experiment found a direct correlation and causation with pedestrians injured and pedestrians that are digitally distracted. Yet people may be blind to more than just their surroundings; they may also be blind to the actual dangers presented.


Lore added before leaving, “I think I’m aware of my surroundings enough. It’ll be fine.”

The Academy of American Orthopaedic Surgeons offers these tips to remain safe while walking:

  • If you must use headphones, maintain a volume where you can still hear the sounds of traffic and your surroundings.
  • If you need to talk to the person next to you, make a phone call, text or other action that could distract you from the goal of getting where you need to go safely, stop and do so away from the pedestrian traffic flow.
  • While you walk, focus on the people, objects and obstacles around you.
  • Don’t jaywalk. Cross streets carefully, preferably at a traffic light, remaining cognizant of the pedestrian traffic flow and the cars and bikes in and near the road.
  • Look up, not down, especially when stepping off or onto curbs or in the middle of major intersections; and/or when walking or approaching on stairs or escalators.
  • Stay alert in mall and other parking lots, and on and near streets, especially during the winter months when it gets dark earlier and drivers are not as likely to see you.

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