Texting while walking changes more than just your chances of running into a pole or another pedestrian. It alters your gait, according to a new study spotted by CNET.
In a recent study published in PLOS One, scientists from Anglia Ruskin University in the UK recruited 21 young people to text and walk under observation. The participants promenaded along an 18-foot-long walkway that contained a fiberboard a few inches high and a step-up box (like you'd find at a gym) designed to trip them up. They navigated the walkway 12 times each: without their phone, while talking on their phone, while reading a text, and while writing and sending a text.
When people whipped out their phones, they took a lot longer to traverse the walking path, which is no doubt a good thing. Compared to not having a phone at all, people took 118 percent longer to complete the task while writing a text. Navigating the walkway while reading a text took 67 percent longer than when there was no phone present, and talking on the phone took 83 percent longer.
The decreased visibility and attention clearly made people more cautious, and that changed their gaits significantly. "We found that using a phone means we look less frequently, and for less time, at the ground, but we adapt our visual search behavior and our style of walking so we're able to negotiate static obstacles in a safe manner," study co-author Matthew Timmis said in a university press release. "This results in phone users adopting a slow and exaggerated stepping action."
None of the participants tripped, and if anything, this study shows that distracted walkers are a little more careful than we give them credit for. They were able to successfully navigate the obstacles while not looking directly at them, a win for peripheral vision. Texting lanes have popped up in a few cities around the world (though mostly as a joke), and in one German city, there are ground-level traffic lights designed to keep texters safe in crosswalks.
Whether or not you think texting while walking is a problem, though, depends on who's doing it. A 2015 survey found that 74 percent of respondents believed "other people" had a problem with distracted walking, but only 29 admitted to doing it themselves. Meanwhile, reports of texting-while-walking accidents may be overblown, since there aren't official statistics on cell-phone-involved pedestrian crashes. The fact of the matter is, it's dangerous to be a pedestrian in the U.S., phone or no phone, largely due to road design rather than iPhone availability. (Sweden, where people also use cell phones, saw its lowest annual road deaths since World War II in 2016, and for the past three years in a row, fewer than 270 people have died on Swedish roads per year.)
Putting your phone down while you're walking down the street might have value beyond personal safety, though. As part of its digital detox program, the technology podcast Note to Self challenges people to put away their phone whenever they're in motion. It's supposed to help wean you off your dependency on your phone, but it could have the added benefit of making you look much more suave when sauntering down the street.