The next time you get stuck walking behind a person who is walking and texting and they’re pissing you off, take comfort in the fact that’s it’s not you — it’s them.
Though perhaps obvious and absolutely not comforting at all, at least this is now cemented in the scienfitic literature. A study published by university students in the United Kingdom confirms that yes, texting on your smartphone actually changes the way you walk through a busy city street.
Because you're focusing on such a complex mental task while propelling your physical body through space, you actually adopt a slower, more protective gait that involves taking smaller steps, taking more steps and raising your feet unnecessarily high to walk up stairs or over curbs, explained the study's senior author Conrad Earnest, a research scientist at Texas A&M University.
“It annoys the hell out of everybody walking behind you,” Earnest told HuffPost. “If I’m trying to walk around you and you veer to the right, then I have to counter even further to the right rather than bump into you, and then that puts me at risk."
Earnest, who until recently worked at the University of Bath in the U.K., first got the idea for the experiment when he was walking around the historic city. Bath, a UNESCO heritage city with ruins dating back to the Roman empire -- you know, the kind of place where you might want to look up -- was overrun with texting walkers, making it difficult for Earnest to get to where he was going. For a reprieve from the nose-down, bent-neck crowd, he ducked into a cafe, only to be confronted with people loudly talking on their phones in line. In other words, this study comes from a place of resentment.
As he kvetched about his experiences to his students, two of them jumped at the chance to measure the source of Earnest’s annoyance in a more scientific way. After walking around the city measuring the height of curbs and sidewalk distances, Sammy License and Robynne Smith designed an obstacle course that mimicked real-world features: a curb to step over, a platform to step on and off, uneven steps and even two dummies, who stood in for bystanders on the street.
Then they instructed 30 participants, aged 18 to 50, to complete three randomized routines: walking normally through the obstacle course, walking while texting, and walking while texting and answering math problems. If texters bumped into dummies or hit the top of steps (what the researchers termed a “barrier contact”), it was counted as a proxy for tripping.
Surprisingly, texting while walking didn’t result in more tripping, said Earnest. That could be because texting while walking, and texting while walking and solving math problems, made participants weave, walk slower and take more steps.
“We didn’t see a huge increase in barrier contacts,” said Earnest. “What we did see is that people slowed down and seemed to exhibit more cautious behavior when walking and texting, but that still didn’t eliminate their veering side-to-side.”
Earnest is no saint when it comes to this subject. While text-walkers annoy him, researching the subject made him realize that he too walks while texting or sending emails. “I’m sure I can be as annoying as anyone else, so I try to be more cognizant of it,” he said. “So if I have to send a text or an email, I actually pull over to the side, stand next to a building, answer the text and then go on with my walk.”
Of course, there’s more at stake to texting and walking than just annoying prickly professors. There are news reports from around the world of pedestrians stumbling onto train tracks, getting hit by vehicles, falling into manholes and ending up in fountains — and the collisions are sometimes fatal.
Antwerp, Washington D.C. and Chongqing, China, have all divided some sidewalks into “cellphone” and “no cellphone lanes,” although we can’t tell whether it’s a serious attempt to segregate walkers, or merely a tongue-in-cheek way to shame text-walkers into putting the phones back in their pockets.
The study was published Wednesday in the open-access journal PLOS One.