Distracted walking: Researcher pins rise in campus pedestrian accidents to cell phones

Many students walking the pathways at USF in Tampa keep their focus on their cell phones, even while crossing streets.
Published June 6

On the sprawling Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, students can’t get enough reading — at least on their smart phones. Many walk the pathways with their heads bent into the world of social media.

They tend to stop and check the signal at an intersection, but some keep their eyes fixed on their gadgets while they’re in the crosswalk.

“Sometimes I do look and sometimes I don’t,’’ said Sarah Nuzzi, 21, a senior majoring in psychology, who was looking at her phone in the crosswalk at Palm and Holly recently. “It’s kind of a bad habit.’’

“I usually watch the sign and everything like that,’’ said Henry Lucate, 22, also a senior majoring in psychology, also focused on his phone in the crosswalk.

“I can see that it’s probably problematic, I’m not going to deny it,’’ he said. “Sometimes by accident you get a notification and you look at your phone.’’

University of South Florida police handled 32 pedestrian and bicycle accidents on campus in the last two years, 15 in 2017 and 17 in 2018. A review of the cases found that a common problem was failure to yield the right of way on the part of the motorist or pedestrian, said Audrey Clarke, police spokeswoman. Careless driving was the cause of some, and at least one blamed glare for the accident.

Though police accident reports infrequently mention distracted driving or walking as a contributing cause, a psychologist who has researched pedestrian safety on urban campuses puts much of the blame on smart phones.

David Schwebel, a psychology professor at University of Alabama at Birmingham, and three fellow scholars last year published a study which found that more than 35 percent of the college students crossing busy streets on two urban college campuses were distracted, “almost always by hand-held mobile devices.’’

Schwebel, who specializes in safety and injury prevention, said in an interview he was motivated to research the problem after seeing that pedestrian accidents, which were on the decline nationally last decade, took an alarming turn in the other direction from 2010 on, up 25 percent from 2010 to 2015. That’s three years after Apple introduced the smart phone.

USF police don’t have statistics from the last decade on the number of pedestrians and bicyclists struck by vehicles. But since 2010, campus numbers peaked in 2013 with 38 accidents, after a low of 12 accidents in 2011.

In the article, published in 2018 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, Schwebel and fellow researchers cited studies that “college-aged young adults use handheld technology more than any other age group, which may lead to distracted walking; nearly 100% of 18- to 29-year-olds own a cell phone and 92% own a smart phone ... Young adults text over 100 times a day on average and check their cellular device multiple times an hour even when not prompted by an alert.’’

“I think we’re recognizing as a society that this is a problem, and we need to figure out how to face it,’’ Schwebel said.

Researchers watched pedestrians for two weeks, from 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m., at busy intersections on the urban campuses at University of Alabama at Birmingham and at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., to determine that more than one-third of the pedestrians crossing were distracted by their mobile devices.

The article noted that observational studies of pedestrians on college campuses in the previous five years showed similar to slightly lower rates of distraction, “suggesting distracted pedestrian behavior is not only a significant issue nationally, but may either be increasing in frequency and/or is more common in pedestrian settings dominated by young adults like college campuses.’’

Schwebel did a follow up study in which students standing before a virtual image of a street tried to cross while texting and ran into problems — rather, problems ran into them. It made an impression, Schwebel said.

“Those people who actually experienced the challenge of crossing the street while they were distracted, they reported that they changed their behavior,’’ he said.

Schwebel is currently experimenting with Bluetooth beacons attached to poles at a campus intersection, which send a message to an app on a volunteer’s phone. When the volunteer steps into the street while engaged with a cell phone, the beacon sends a message that warns the walker to look at his or her surroundings rather than the phone. He hopes to test it on about 400 volunteers in the fall. If it proves effective, he believes the university would encourage all students to download the app.

Currently, he said, nothing much is being done anywhere to alert college students of the dangers of looking at their cell phones while crossing streets on campus.

Nuzzi and Lucate both said that because of the low, 15- to 25-mph speed limit on campus, they are lulled into believing that cars will stop for them.

"I know the campus pretty well,’’ Nuzzi said. “I like to think I know when times are busy, and I know when I can get away with that. But anything can happen.’’

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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