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Heads Up: Cell Phones Add to Risk When Crossing Street, Study Shows

By Jeff Meisner MacNewsWorld ECT News Network
Jan 27, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Children who talk on mobile phones while crossing the street are more likely to suffer injuries or death than children who cross the street undistracted, according to researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Heads Up: Cell Phones Add to Risk When Crossing Street, Study Shows

Kids who were having phone conversations took 20 percent longer to cross the street than their phone-free counterparts, concludes a study published Monday in the medical journal Pediatrics. They were 43 percent more likely to be hit by a car or have a close call.

In addition, children crossing the street while talking on a mobile phone looked both ways 20 percent fewer times before they crossed, and gave themselves 8 percent less time to cross, the researchers discovered.

Virtual Study Environment

UAB conducted the study in a virtual environment, said Despina Stavros, a graduate research assistant in the university's department of psychology.

They used a virtual reality software program and three monitors to display an actual Birmingham-area crosswalk with simulated vehicles of different sizes traveling on the virtual street.

The study was conducted with 77 children, aged 10 or 11, who completed 12 street crossings each -- six times while talking on a mobile phone with a research assistant and six times without.

"Our main message is that we don't think cell phones are necessarily bad," Stavrinos told MacNewsWorld, "but we really want to emphasize that parents should teach their children when it's OK to talk on a cell phone and when it isn't."

CTIA, a lobbying group for the wireless industry, did not dispute the importance of parents teaching their children the right and wrong way to use a mobile device.

"Safety is job one for any pedestrian, especially children," Joseph Farren, a CTIA spokesperson, told MacNewsWorld, "and the most important and critical part of that job involves parenting. Parents have to make sure that children know their responsibilities and are mature enough to be safe pedestrians before sending them off into the world with a bicycle, wireless device or music player."

Other Studies Under Way

UAB is also studying the way text messaging or listening to digital music devices such as iPods impacts a person's ability to safely cross a street, Stavros said.

"Texting requires a stronger motor component than talking on a cell phone," she said. "With iPods, there is a reduction in hearing capacity. The study is now ongoing. I would suspect, though, that because auditory [functioning] is an important part of crossing the street, that iPods will distract [pedestrians] to a level that compromises their safety."

The studies are being conducted because, more and more, mobile phones and other handheld devices are being marketed to younger children. More than 60 percent of children aged eight to 12 now own a mobile phone of one kind or another, Stavros said, citing UAB research.

Too Much Multitasking?

Consumers are multitasking more today than in years past, both in the home and in the car, Forrester Research data shows.

"We know that more people are often on the Web while watching TV," Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst with Forrester, told MacNewsWorld. "Younger peoples' brains are wired differently and are better able to multitask than older people, but they still have diminished attention to whatever primary task they're supposed to be doing."

No federal law exists prohibiting driving while talking on the phone. However, many states, including California and Washington, have passed laws that forbid talking on a mobile phone while driving unless it is done with a hands-free device, noted Golvin.

"My personal observation is that [the law in California] doesn't have much effect," he said. "The police have plenty of other things that they consider plenty more important to look for."

It is possible that technology could play a part in reducing the number of drivers that talk on the phone while they navigate the roads.

Cell phone companies know when a phone is live during an active call and whether the mobile phone owner is walking or in a car due to the frequency with which calls are handed off from one cell site to another, Golvin said.

"So, they could provide evidence if law enforcement was to ask them," he pointed out.

Personal Responsibility

Ultimately, it's the personal responsibility of mobile device owners to behave in a safe manner when on the road or crossing the street, in Golvin's view. On the other hand, communities and governments must also play a part in demonstrating to consumers that the repercussions of mobile phone usage at critical times -- such as while driving -- won't be tolerated.

"It's sort of like drunk driving," Golvin said. "It took organizations like [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] where people were shamed into no longer drunk driving -- and the penalties became much more severe for those who were caught doing it. However, in California, it's a US$50 or $60 ticket if you get caught [talking on a cell phone while driving], which is a lot less expensive than, say, when you get caught speeding."

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