It’s probably not the radiation from a smartphone that is a health hazard. But the devices – increasingly – are seen as potent menaces to our healthy and safety.

Joshua Burwell, a 33-year-old Indiana man, is the poster boy. On Christmas Day, on Sunset Cliffs, a jagged San Diego overlook above the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Burwell plunged 40 feet to his death, apparently because he was distracted looking at his smartphone and simply stepped off the cliff.

That incident may have grabbed the headlines, but it is not alone. A chorus of loud voices now is raised, insisting that “distracted walking,” as experts call it, is every bit as dangerous as texting and driving. Regarding the latter, we all know that is high risk – at least anybody who has been to a movie theater in the past few years has seen vivid advertisements hammering home the message that it is dangerous to try to text and drive. Now experts are saying similar about walking and cellphones.

Question: is there in fact anything new about this? “There have been distracted walking incidents since the day of the first caveman who walked into the jaws of saber-toothed tiger while admiring the pretty butterfly above his head,” said blogger Mario Almonte said. “The fact is, there will always be distracted people who’ll get into accidents.”

That’s fact. But the other fact – maybe the game-changer – is that we all have smartphones with us, just about all the time, and they are forever buzzing with incoming calls, texts, alerts and more. Phones demand attention. And when we respond when we are walking, we may be at risk. “It’s almost an addiction,” said Manhattan psychotherapist Jonathan Alpert. He added: “I see distracted walking around me all the time.”

The National Safety Council in 2015 included “distracted walking” accidents for the first time in its Injury Facts survey. The Council elaborated: “Distracted walking injuries involving cell phones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries between 2000 and 2011.”

The Council continued: “While cell phone distracted walking injuries were most common among women and those ages 40 and younger, the study found the issue is impacting all age groups. 21% of those injured were 71 and older. Talking on the phone accounted for 62% of injuries, the most common of which were dislocation or fracture, sprains or strains and concussions. Nearly 80% of the injuries were due to a fall.”

As far back as 2011, two professors at Stony Brook University on Long Island wrote a now heavily cited paper “Cell phones change the way we walk” that looks at, in the muted language of academia, the claim that “cell phone use among pedestrians leads to increased cognitive distraction, reduced situation awareness and increases in unsafe behavior.”

Death, incidentally, grabs the headlines. But where distracted walking is involved, it’s the exception. Said Thousand Oaks, Calif. dentist Justin Sycamore: “I would imagine that the problem may not lead to many fatalities but mainly minor injuries. I’ve repaired chipped front teeth to two separate teenagers in the last year who chipped their teeth while texting and walking.”

Newark, Del. chiropractic physician Scott Schreiber said similar: “I have personally seen various incidents where individuals were texting and/or listening to music and ran into myself or other people in close vicinity. I have also treated patients that were injured due to distracted walking, either the walker or the innocent victim. I feel this is the ‘distracted driving’ of the new generation. As more people use smartphones for everyday living, I believe it will only get worse.”

Murray Grossan, a physician in Los Angeles, said likewise: “I am terrified by persons walking right in front of my moving vehicle against the do not walk sign. If I am turning a corner and a pedestrian is on a phone, I slow to a crawl because that person may step in front of me. How do I know cell phone pedestrians are dangerous? I see them in the Emergency Room to fix their wounds.”

Exactly how do we put ourselves in these messes? Simple, said multiple sources: we are terrible at multitasking especially when the tasks are, say, texting on a cellphone and trying to navigate on foot especially in high risk situations such as midtown Manhattan – or on the edge of a cliff in southern California. We just are not wired to successfully multitask with a cellphone in hand.

What’s the remedy? Multiple experts said the same – go back to what most of us were taught in grammar school. It’s that simple. In elementary school most of us were taught the basics of safe walking. Look both ways before crossing. Stay alert. And whenever paying attention to that buzzing cell phone, get to a safe spot – away from traffic – and stop.

Even a first grader can do it. So can we.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.

Source: The Street
January 20, 2016
By Robert McGarvey