Never Mind the Gum …

January 17, 2010

I’ve written here before about my doubts regarding people’s claims of being able to multi-task, and also, more recently, about a new crop of distractions for drivers.  Driving is a reasonably demanding cognitive task, especially since it happens at speeds considerably higher than ordinary human locomotion.  But you might think that people could manage to do something else while just walking down the street.

It may be that the average person can walk down the street and chew gum at the same time — chewing gum, after all, is not particularly demanding mentally — but, as an article in the New York Times reports, walking down the street and talking on the phone at the same time can be hazardous to your health.

… there is another growing problem caused by lower-stakes multitasking — distracted walking — which combines a pedestrian, an electronic device and an unseen crack in the sidewalk, the pole of a stop sign, a toy left on the living room floor or a parked (or sometimes moving) car.

Of course, since the speeds involved are much less, the injuries people sustain are, fortunately, not usually serious: scrapes, bruises, and badly sprained dignity being the  most common.  But sometimes the consequences are more serious.  In 2008, according to a study conducted by Ohio State University, more than 1,000 people went to emergency rooms for treatment of injuries suffered while walking and talking.or texting.  The number is admittedly not a large chunk of the population, but it has risen by about 100% per year for three years running.  (The statistics were compiled from accident data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.)

Examples of such visits include a 16-year-old boy who walked into a telephone pole while texting and suffered a concussion; a 28-year-old man who tripped and fractured a finger on the hand gripping his cellphone; and a 68-year-old man who fell off the porch while talking on a cellphone, spraining a thumb and an ankle and causing dizziness.

You might think that, if a person were texting and focused on the device screen, it would be natural for them to miss seeing things, for example.  You might equally well think that someone driving a car, and trying at the same time to fumble with a hand-held phone, could get his movements clumsily mixed up.  But there is more and more evidence accumulating that just talking on a cell phone is significantly distracting.  Drivers using hands-free cell phones do not appear to be materially less distracted than those using ordinary devices.  And there is evidence that talking on the phone while walking is significantly more distracting than talking with a walking companion.

A recent study, at Western Washington University, by psychology Professor Ira Hyman and his students, found that cell phone use was very different from ordinary conversation.  The researchers monitored pedestrian traffic around a popular campus square.  They first noted that people on cell phones walked more slowly and were prone to weave around.  They then introduced an unusual element into the scene:

One of the students dressed as a clown and unicycled around a central square on campus. About half the people walking past by themselves said they had seen the clown, and the number was slightly higher for people walking in pairs. But only 25 percent of people talking on a cellphone said they had, Mr. Hyman said.

Even on a college campus, encountering a clown riding a unicycle is not an everyday occurence.  It is striking that just talking on the phone meant that people were only half as likely to notice.  (Why only half of the “undistracted” people noticed is, of course, also an interesting question.)   This result is consistent with other studies of drivers, which have found talking on the phone to be unusually distracting, compared to listening to music or talking with someone in the car.  The most plausible explanation that I’ve seen is that a phone conversation puts you in a different “virtual place”, and imagining that place hijacks part of the cognitive apparatus that you normally use to monitor your surroundings.

This is a fascinating research area that obviously has some very significant real-world implications.  The New York Times has a complete series of articles on the topic of Distracted Driving.   In the meantime: the gum is OK, but keep the phone in your pocket.

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