A recent commuter train crash in Los Angeles has focused attention on text-messaging while driving, but some hospitals and lawmakers are concerned with a different problem familiar to harried pedestrians in constantly-on-the-go cities, like New York and London -– texting while walking.
A 14-year-old boy in Florida died Monday after walking in front on an oncoming car while sending a text message on his cell phone. Christopher Cepeda's three friends noticed the car as they were trying to cross a highway near Orlando, but Cepeda, apparently distracted by his cell phone, did not, and stepped into the roadway, according to the Polk County Sheriff's Office.
His death is one of what some doctors say are a rising number of injuries to pedestrians, bicyclists, rollerbladers and drivers who are distracted by sending e-mail and text messages on their cell phones and blackberries.
While there are no reliable statistics on the frequency of text message-related injuries, the American College of Emergency Physicians went so far as to issue a warning earlier this year about the rising number of accidents.
"Almost every emergency room physician in an urban area or busy community hospitals have seen somebody who was walking, riding, skateboarding or trying to drive, and has been distracted by texting," said Dr. Mark Melrose, director of emergency medicine at Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, N.J.
"The more people try to multitask and do so many things at once, the more likely we are to see people with injuries from trying to do too much at once," Melrose said.
Most injuries are minor, Melrose added. Among the accidents tracked by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission were a girl who was texting while riding a horse, let go of the reins and fell off, hurting her lower back; a 15-year-old student who was texting while walking down the hall and hurt her eye after she bumped into another student; and a 16-year-old, oblivious to his surroundings, who recently walked into a telephone poll.
Text messaging has quickly become a common form of communication, especially among teens. About 75 billion SMS text messages were sent in June this year alone, according to CTIA, the mobile industry's trade association.
A CTIA survey found that nine out of 10 teens text; more than 40 percent said they could send SMS messages blindfolded.
The issue of distracted motorists has been in the news after investigators revealed that the engineer of a commuter train in Southern California was text-messaging while on duty on the day the train crashed into a freight train. California regulators passed a temporary order last week banning train operators from using cell phones on duty.
Five states -- Alaska, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Jersey and Washington -- have laws specifically prohibiting texting behind the wheel, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. Twenty-one other states are considering passing similar legislation.
Legislators in two states -– New York and Illinois -– have proposed banning texting or using other electronic devices, such as iPods, while crossing the street. Those laws are still pending in the state legislatures.
"It is something that's easy to be be laughed at, but it is a real phenomenon that people are wedded to. These are real accidents, and potential deaths," said Illinois State Rep. Ken Dunkin, the sponsor of that state's bill.
Not everyone sees a need for the laws.
"I've never heard of it being a problem. I'm not familiar with that being an issue," Todd Hill, the bicycle and pedestrian coordinator at the Illinois Department of Transportation, said of walking and texting.
"I suppose it would be like anything that would take their minds away from what they're doing," he said. "That could be a problem, but I haven't heard that this one was."