Texting While Walking Draws Safety Concerns — And An App

By Cristina Quinn

Dec. 20, 2011

texting while walking

A woman talks on her cell phone on the streets of New York City. (UltraSlo1 via Flickr)

BOSTON — Stand at the intersection of any busy area, like Downtown Crossing or Harvard Square, and you’ll see a sea of heads bent over phones, oblivious to what’s going on around them.
They’re everywhere. Stumbling on sidewalks, ambling across busy streets, their minimal affect all too much like... zombies. But they aren’t zombies. They’re distracted pedestrians.
The National Transportation Safety Board made headlines last week when it suggested a federal ban on texting while driving. Is our next public safety concern related to walking? 
New data (pdf) from another safety group, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, shows a 4 percent rise in pedestrian fatalities, and a 19 percent spike in injuries.  It’s too soon to know what’s behind this — whether it’s cell phones or texting… or if it’s even a trend. But there is anecdotal data about distracted pedestrians.

A pair uses their cell phones while taking a walk in Seattle. The WalkSafe app might help prevent them from falling in the water. (wonderlane via Flickr)

While the smartphone, with its numerous and wondrous applications, allows us to access so much right at our fingertips, it also serves as a major distraction.
Well, there’s an app for that now.
The Smartphone Sensing Group at Dartmouth College recently came out with the WalkSafe app for Android phones. Using the camera on the back of the phone, it detects oncoming traffic, so that when you’re crossing the street while talking on the phone, it will alert you if a car is coming toward you.
Andrew Campbell is a professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, and the director of the Smartphone Sensing Group. He said the WalkSafe app is one step toward making the smartphone a cognitive phone. In his vision, a phone could become a life preserver.
Smartphones are getting smarter. They have a number of built-in sensors — e.g., the camera, microphone and the accelerometer — that can tell people things about their behavior. Are they walking, standing, cycling, in a car? So these sensors allow the phone, for the first time, to mimic human perception,” said Campbell.

The WalkSafe app in action.

A phone that can see and hear is not so far-fetched. But as a life preserver?
Dr. Larry Rosen doesn’t think so. “I think a phone should be used for the purpose that it was created, which is a phone, a computer, a communications device,” Rosen said.
Rosen is a professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills and author of" Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn."
He thought that a setup that “allow[s] you to do something which is inherently dangerous, and relying upon your technology to keep you safe, seems a bit excessive."
Some towns and cities in the U.S. this year enforced texting bans. After seeing distracted college kids stepping into crosswalks and getting hit by cars, the town of Rexburg, Idaho, enforced a ban on texting while walking, with a fine of $50 for the first offense. In October, Chicago passed legislation banning texting while bicycling. 

In this widely circulated (and mocked) video, a woman falls into a mall fountain while texting.

Rosen says we are not wired to walk and text at the same time. And that we don’t know how to handle the constant influx of new technology being developed.

DJ Henry and siblings

Back in the old days... an epic, oh, 20 years ago...  "a new technology would come and we would have time to integrate it into our lives,” Rosen said.We don’t have much time to integrate the new technologies, and so it’s going to take some sort of awareness of the upsides of the technology and the potential downsides. You can’t just blithely accept a technology without asking, what role does this play in the rest of my life?”
Even Andrew Campbell, creator of the WalkSafe app, said relying on WalkSafe is not a good idea. “Technology is a massive distraction in our lives," he admitted. But he thought apps such as WalkSafe are the first steps toward using the phone as a tool to monitor our behavior.
"Letting it understand us and our behavior and our patterns, then essentially the phone can sit in our pocket and be less distracting in our daily lives, so we can get to a point where really computing does disappear off into the infrastructure, but it's capable of understanding our human perception — what we're looking at, what we're hearing, potentially even what we're smelling... and I think that’s going to lead to enormous opportunities and advances,” Campbell said.
So if you order the same latte everyday, your phone will pick up on this and preorder for you. Or if it notices higher levels of stress during certain meetings in your calendar, it can remind you to go to the gym or let your friends know that you’re stressed out.
While the current version of the WalkSafe app has a lot of kinks to work out before the final version is released, we have our common sense to rely on for now.  As long as we remember to watch where we’re going. Because we wouldn’t want to find out the hard way... should a real zombie invasion take place. 

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