Distracted Walking: How 'Petextrians' Are Endangering Our Streets

PHOTO: A young man is shown texting and walking in this undated stock photo.Getty Images
A young man is shown texting and walking in this undated stock photo.

We’ve all been warned about the dangers of distracted driving. But what about distracted walking?

A government report released today highlights an unsettling trend: After decades of decline, pedestrian fatalities are once again on the rise. And "petextrians" -- people who text while walking -- may be partly to blame, according to the report.

Between the mid-1970s and early 2000s, pedestrian deaths steadily declined, eventually dipping to around 11 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities, according to a Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) report. But since 2009, pedestrian fatalities have actually increased by 15 percent -- climbing to 4,735 in 2013.

That’s one pedestrian death every two hours.

Meanwhile, the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cell phones has risen, from less than 1 percent in 2004 to more than 3.5 percent in 2010, according to a study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University, cited by the GHSA report. And the number of pedestrians injured while on their cells has more than doubled since 2005, the report shows.

Distracted walkers take longer to cross the street and are more likely to ignore traffic lights or neglect to look both ways, researchers said. Interestingly, distracted walkers are more likely to use crosswalks -- perhaps trying to offset their risky behavior.

The problem is particularly prevalent among teens, who tend to believe it’s okay to cross the street while texting or tweeting. Nearly 40 percent of U.S. teens have been hit or nearly hit by a passing car, motorcycle, or bike -- and those hit or nearly hit tend to report higher rates of cell phone-related distraction than their peers.

The stats apparently have officials worried.

In response to particularly high pedestrian fatality rates, Philadelphia launched the humorous "Road Safety, Not Rocket Science” campaign, urging pedestrians (particularly young people) to “pick your head up, put your phone down,” and issued more than 400 "mock" tickets for distracted walking.

Of course, distracted driving is more dangerous than distracted walking, the GHSA report acknowledged.

"After all, the driver is operating a multi-ton vehicle," the report says. However, "the risk for injury and death certainly escalates when a pedestrian is not focused on his or her environment."