'Distracted Walking' Is No Walk in the Park

09/22/2013 07:33 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2013

Health care providers are seeing an increase in "walking while texting" accidents, with terrible injuries undermining the "viral" explosion of tragi-comic trips, pratfalls, and collisions. "Distracted walking" is a matter of concern to public health professionals, slowly joining "distracted driving" as a matter of urgent national attention.

The evidence is indeed slowly gathering, but a good indication of the severity of the growing problem is the almost constant "doubling" of the incidents from one year to the next: this is a geometric progression that amounts to a pandemic which makes the fictional, movie "outbreaks" of designer epidemics and Zombie flicks literally pale in comparison.

Seattle's intersections were monitored by the University of Washington and they got an eyeful: pedestrians who texted were four times less likely to look before crossing streets, stay in crosswalks, or obey traffic signals.

Ohio State University studied local emergency rooms and discerned that more than 1500 people were treated for cell phone related injuries, a triple increase from previous years. Cell phone abuse is a close cousin of texting while walking abuse. Cell phone usage while driving has already been addressed by state legislatures in almost every state. Texting while walking has not received the same attention. But that is changing.

ABC News reported back in May 2012 that the reported number of distracted walking accidents doubled each and every year, with 100 percent compounded increases logged in from 2006 to 2007 to 2008. If the ABC stats hold true, a geometric progression of pandemic proportions has reached the point where those scattered "incidents" now cover the technologically advanced world from continent to continent.

The humor of the incidents, sometimes reported on social media, itself distracts from the seriousness of the problem. Anecdotal "viral" stories such as the "texter" Los Angeles man almost bumping into a prowling black bear, the "Fountain Lady" in Pennsylvania who walked, and texted, her way into a mall decorative fountain, "distracted walkers" who took a long walk off a short pier into Lake Michigan, a New York woman who texted herself into an open sewage manhole, and other "LOL" favorites gather some laughs, but how funny they really are depends on your point of view. Safety officials are not amused. They are alarmed.

Last year, the Associated Press reported that reports of injured distracted walkers treated in selected American emergency rooms "more than quadrupled" in the seven years surveyed, and were "almost certainly underreported." A spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association told the AP: "We are where we were with cell phone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew that it was a problem, but we didn't have the data."

Blame the universal myth of Multi-Tasking for the problem: human brain evolution does not allow for texting at the same time as walking, and that's a fact. You cannot think as a split screen: you are always limited to one task at a time, one requiring full attention and one which becomes a hazardous distraction. What appears to you to be multi-tasked activity are really two tasks half-heartedly attended to, with sometimes-fatal results. You can walk but not text, or text but not walk, much as you can drive but not text or text but not drive, and never both at the same time. If you get away with doing both at the same time, it is mere luck, not your superior multi tasking skills. Luck is fickle.

Solutions will be hard to come by. State legislatures refuse to seriously consider "distracted walking" statutes outlawing the practice, showing a preliminary reluctance to any control on the practice, much as "distracted driving" laws, now common, drew great controversy when first codified in law. But that changed when the body count leaped from year to year, much as the body count of "distracted walking" barrels upward. It remains to be seen whether the distracted walking remains a viral joke or is treated with the somber urgency it truly deserves.