No one goes on a walk outside anymore. Or rather, sure they do, but most walkers today equip themselves with headsets of one form or another, blocking out the actual sounds of the real world. In my home state of Florida, that includes a pleasant cacophony of birdsong, from the squawking of wild parrots, to the gobble-gobble of sandhill cranes, to the sweet warbling of finches. Behind the protective wall of noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds, walkers might as well be indoors at a gym.
But if these people have no interest in nature and simply want a bit of exercise, that’s their choice. Live and let live, I say. More specifically, I hope they actually do live. I’m a cyclist, you see, and I frequently ride on trails shared by walkers. On my handlebars is an old-fashioned non-digital warning device: a bell. I’ll ring it about 15 feet behind pedestrians to gently let them know I am coming. Unfortunately, the soft tinkling of the bell isn’t adequate to penetrate the private world of a song or podcast. No one hears me! I’ll slow down, but sometimes when I pass, it so surprises the walker that she starts in fright. I really don’t want to scare anyone, but I’d prefer that to running them down.
The problem is not limited to walking trails. These smart phone zombies are risking life and limb wherever they go. “Today, more and more people are falling down stairs, tripping over curbs and other streetscapes and, in many instances, stepping into traffic, causing cuts, bruises, sprains, and fractures,” commented Alan Hilibrand, MD, in a report on pedestrian accidents involving smart phones by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS).
More than three-quarters of the 6,000 Americans interviewed by AAOS for the report agreed that distracted walking was a “serious” issue. Interestingly only 29 percent admitted that they themselves were guilty of distracted walking. And 22 percent described the problem as “funny,” rather than “dangerous.”
The “it’s not me, it’s you” attitude doesn’t help much with correcting the problem. In 2021, more than 7,000 pedestrians were killed and 60,000 injured nationwide as a result of distracted walking, according to The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
What to do about it? A few years back, the City of Honolulu instituted fines for crossing the street while using the phone. In Yamato, Japan, the government also outlawed the practice, though it didn’t back the rule up with a fine. Theirs is more of an honor system, and one can only guess how well that would play in the States.
It’s not easy to break people of their phone obsession. In the spirit of “if you can’t lick ’em, join ’em,” Chongqing, China, and Antwerp, Belgium created safe walking lanes just for cell phone users, separate from other pedestrians. That plan may be working, but how many cities are going to pony up the money to designate paths for the distracted?
Look, I’m as attached to my smart phone as the next person, but I am capable of going for a walk or a bike ride with the phone tucked away in my pocket. I wish others would do so as well, for their own safety (and mine).
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