PALO ALTO, Calif. - Using a cell phone while driving has triggered alarm bells and prompted laws in several states, experts say, but pedestrians are also suffering the consequences of mobile distraction - tripping on curbs, walking into traffic, even stepping into manholes as they chat or type while walking.
Two states, New York and Illinois, have considered laws limiting the use of personal electronic devices by pedestrians, but no bills have been passed.
To help these sidewalk stumblers step out more safely, technology companies are now stepping in, creating applications that do everything from make a smart phone screen transparent to transforming speech into text.
The Jawbone earpiece, made by San Francisco-based Aliph, which also makes bluetooth earpieces, incorporates voice-to-text technology that eliminates the need to glance down at the keypad to send an e-mail or text message. It also has caller ID that speaks to the wearer so he or she doesn't have to pick up the phone to see who is calling.
Other programs also on the market aim to make it easier to type while walking. They tap into a smart phone's camera to beam an image of what's in front of the user over the message screen so typers can see what's ahead. They include Text Vision, Type n Walk and Email 'n Walk.
"See-through screens, yes, would solve part of the problem," said Clifford Nass, a professor of communications at Stanford University and one of the authors of a study on multitasking. "But there's still a second problem, which has to do with engagement of the brain."
Same goes with voice-to-text technology, Nass said.
"It can help a little bit, but the fundamental problem is that we're stuck with brains that can't do all that much when we're doing other things," he said.
Exacerbating the problem is that texting has grown exponentially in recent years. The wireless industry association CTIA reported that the number of text messages sent by its members' customers increased from 32.6 billion in the first six months of 2005 to 740 billion in the first six months of 2009.
Most lawmakers and experts agree that Big Brothering the sidewalks is impractical. They instead encourage public outreach and see promise in the technological innovations, including ones that don't involve phones themselves, such as special crosswalk lights to grab walkers' attention better.