Distracted Walking: More Serious Than You Think

Almost everyone has heard about the dangers of distracted driving. Distractions may be anything from talking on a mobile phone to interacting with a passenger – anything that moves our attention away from what we’re doing. When this happens, we can make harmful mistakes.

These same issues apply to distracted walking. Take a look at the large number of people walking while doing some other activity – talking on a cell phone, using earbuds to listen to music, watching a video or reading a message on a mobile device. People trust themselves to be able to walk while doing other activities that draw a lot of attention. It’s as if people think that walking is so automatic, they don’t need to pay attention.

A new study on distracted walking released by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) finds that more than three quarters (78 percent) of U.S. adults believe that distracted walking is a “serious” issue. Some people referred to this as “zoning out.”

“Today, the dangers of the ‘digital dead walker’ are growing with more and more people falling down stairs, tripping over curbs, bumping into others, or stepping into the path of on-coming vehicles causing a rising number of injuries—from scrapes and bruises to sprains and fractures,” said Alan Hilibrand, MD, AAOS spokesperson. Emergency department hospital visits for injuries involving distracted walkers on cell phones more than doubled between 2004 and 2010, according to a 2013 study appearing in the journal Accident, Analysis & Prevention.

One of the challenges in combating distracted walking may be that we’re overly confident in our ability to multitask. When asked why they walk distracted, 48 percent of respondents in the AAOS study said “they just don’t think about it,” 28 percent feel “they can walk and do other things,” and 22 percent “are busy and want to use their time productively.”

The issue of distracted walking is especially serious when it takes place on a construction site. The possibility for severe injury is much greater because of the configuration of walkways and the unfinished state of most walkway conditions. A further hazard is moving equipment in and around the construction site. Often times equipment operators are watching the condition of their loads and not paying attention to workers who are walking around the site. If a worker on the ground isn’t paying attention to what’s happening on the site, too, the situation could end in tragedy.

Safety professionals have developed a practice to control distracted walking caused by mobile phones – the cell phone safe zone. This is a designated place on the construction site where no traffic or trip fall hazards are allowed, enabling a worker to use a phone safely without worrying about anything else that’s going on in the area.

Outside of the cell phone safe zone, companies should prohibit distractions or constantly remind workers to engage – that is, pay attention while we walk.

“The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons urges workers to avoid musculoskeletal and other injuries by engaging with their surroundings — drivers, other walkers and obstacles,” said

Dr. Hilibrand. “Many of us simply need to force ourselves to set down our devices and focus on what’s in front of and around us.”

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