02/01/2012 07:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

Do We Need to Address Distracted Pedestrians?

I'll admit it: Every so often, while sending a very important text message about whether I was going food shopping and jamming out on my headphones, I walk directly into a telephone poll. No harm done, my head is sturdily affixed to the rest of my body. But if I had walked into a car, the results might have been rather gruesome.

This is an issue for many young people who are constantly engaged with their mobile devices, and a new study has confirmed that my anecdotal experience has in fact led to tragic results. Researchers from the University of Maryland have recently released a study strongly linking headphone use to increased risk of accidents for pedestrians, moving the conversation a bit from a focus only on distracted driving. The study found that serious injuries to pedestrians wearing headphones are on the rise, especially amongst young men.

While it seems likely that distracted driving is the far greater danger -- after all drivers are wielding 1,500 pounds of metal at high speed -- the study points to the need to better understand the dangers of distracted walking. The research is incomplete, but if distracted driving is often equated to drinking and driving in terms of danger, perhaps distracted walking should be compared to public intoxication.

While studies have shown that intoxicated people have a greater chance of being struck by a car, walking around drunk has never drawn the same public scorn or legal consequences that drinking and driving has -- and with good reason. Often "walking home" is a far preferable outcome than getting in the car, even if it's not the optimal solution.

But as our lives become ever more entwined with technology, is it time to consider a law that would fine people for distracted walking?

This idea gained a bit of traction in New York and California last year, where a bill was introduced that would ban pedestrians from using cell phones while crossing the street. Part of those legislators' evidence was that pedestrian accidents increased in 2010 for the first time since 2005.

San Francisco, in particular, is a city that struggles with serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. However the problem seems treatable as more than half of the city's major pedestrian accidents occur on only 7 percent of the roads. Mayor Ed Lee is working to improve some of the design flaws that make certain areas more dangerous for pedestrians, and I think his administration would do well to acknowledge that mobile device use distracts pedestrians and can make these already dangerous intersections more so.

Signs that caution pedestrians to get off of their cell phones when crossing the street, or a public service campaign to raise awareness would be simple first steps. As the writers of the study pointed out, the data is not definitive enough to design a perfect action plan. But it is alarming, and reinforces what we already know: Your eyes and ears are necessary to keep you safe on the streets.

We should be integrating this awareness into how we teach children about road safety, and the more general public consciousness. "Always look both ways before crossing" needs to be amended to include "and look up from your phone."

Beckley Mason writes the GJEL street safety blog.