Walking & Talking A Bad Combo

We've all heard plenty of statistics that tell us how dangerous it is to talk on our cell phones while driving. Now a new study from the University of Illinois has also found that talking on a cell phone while crossing the street is also dangerous. In fact, it's more dangerous than listening to an MP3 player while crossing the street. (Interestingly enough, the study found that listening to music while crossing a street caused the test subjects little to no distraction.)

Through this study, Mark Neider, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute, hopes people will be more conscious of their surroundings and activities. “They should be aware that their ability to do certain tasks can be impaired when they are using these types of devices,” Neider said. “I’m not going to sit here and tell people not to talk on their cell phones. But be aware and act accordingly. If you are talking on a cell phone and about to cross a street, maybe tell somebody to hold on for a second.”

The study used virtual reality equipment to analyze three groups of college students. The first group crossed a virtual street with no distractions. The second group listened to music on an iPod, and the third group talked on a cell phone. During the study, none of the students were hit by virtual cars, but the results did show that talking on a cell phone is a distraction while crossing a street. In addition, researchers wonder if the results would have been different if the subjects were under real-world pressures of having to be somewhere at a specific time. The study did not provide statistics regarding how frequently people are injured when walking and talking on cell phones.

"Whereas in the real world, people are often in a rush," Neider said. "They run around like ants marching in New York. Everybody has to get somewhere and they have to be there five minutes ago. It's possible that when you are under this sort of pressure you are more likely to take higher risks in that situation and when you talking on a cell phone you may have problems."

Research that centers on using a cell phone while doing other activities is sure to continue. Beckman Institute researcher Art Kramer said future studies include looking at the nature of the dual task interaction involved in crossing a street while distracted. For example, even though the data showed listening to an iPod was not distracting, Kramer wondered if this might have more to do with the fact that subjects were listening to music rather than something that might require more concentration such as a podcast on a scientific topic.