Distracted walking ‘a death wish’ for pedestrians focused on phones

You’ve undoubtedly heard of — and witnessed — the menace of distracting driving.

More than 3,000 people were killed and 400,000 injured nationally in 2013 as the result of unfocused drivers — many of them staring at a cellphone just before impact.

Now, here’s another digital diversion to worry about — distracted walking.

The percentage of pedestrians killed while using cellphones rose to more than 3.5 percent in 2010 from less than 1 percent in 2004, according to a study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University. The number of pedestrians injured while using their cellphones doubled.

Dr. Scott McFarland, emergency room director at Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, is not surprised. McFarland said at least two people show up to his emergency room every week who are victims of distracted walking. That number is probably higher, McFarland said, but some patients are too embarrassed to say they were hurt while hypnotized by electronics.

“Walking around with your head in the clouds, unconcerned about the dangers around you, is almost like a death wish,” McFarland said.

Most of the distracted walkers that show up to McFarland’s emergency room are limited to sprains and broken bones. But the result can be far more deadly.

Jesus Villalobos, a 16-year-old boy from Colombia attending Elev8 Sports Institute in Delray Beach, was struck and killed by a Florida East Coast Railway train Dec. 8 as he walked along the railroad track. Delray Beach police detectives said the boy was wearing headphones and may not have heard the approaching train.

The issue of distracted walking has become so serious that, for the first time, the National Safety Council added the category to its annual report on unintentional deaths and injuries in 2015.

Google “distracted walking” and there are no shortage of examples depicting bizarre and sometimes deadly instances.

A 33-year-old Indiana man walked off a cliff in San Diego and fell 60 feet to his death on Christmas Day while looking down at his device.

— Last May, a 68-year-old Texas woman visiting Philadelphia was looking down at her iPad crossing a city street when she was hit and killed by an amphibious duck boat filled with tourists.

— In April 2012, a Los Angeles television station filmed a California man texting on his cellphone while he walked directly into the path of a 400-pound bear. The man fled safely.

The sight of pedestrians lost in their text messaging has become so common that a term was coined — pedtextrian.

Walking around South Florida has long been risky business. For years, Washington, D.C.-based Smart Growth America has listed the tri-county area of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach as among the nation’s dangerous.

After the state was ranked as the nation’s worst for pedestrians and bicyclists in 2011, the Florida Department of Transportation launched a campaign — Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow — to raise awareness.

Trenda McPherson, the state’s bicycle and pedestrian safety manager, said not enough data has been collected to demonstrate the dangers of distracted walking in Florida, “but looking at what’s going on nationally, we can assume it’s happening here.”

As part of the campaign, the state has developed a tip card that can be attached to cellphones advising, “Stop the Talk. Just Walk.”

“It’s really to make people stop and think how they’re behaving,” McPherson said.

Some people aren’t getting the message.

McFarland said he recently watched while a boy walking with his head down and looking at his phone ran into a barricade near Palm Beach Gardens High School. The boy didn’t end up in a hospital. But a woman scanning her phone while pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket parking lot didn’t see a car pulling out and wound up in McFarland’s emergency room with a broken hip.

“What’s the words of caution people use? Heads up?” McFarland said. “What you see is people with their heads down. That’s an invitation to disaster.”

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