Jan. 26, 2009 -- It's something all parents teach their children: Make sure you look right and left before crossing the street. Now they may want to add another instruction: Hang up that cell phone before venturing off the sidewalk.
A study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics finds that trying to cross the street while talking on a cell phone can be dangerous for young adolescents.
The practice is an emerging and little-recognized hazard as more and more preteens get cell phones. According to the study, 54 percent of 8- to 12-year-olds will have cell phones by the end of this year -- double the rate in 2006.
"The influence of cell phones on child pedestrian safety is particularly concerning because cell phones, an oddity a decade ago, are quickly becoming ubiquitous among American schoolchildren," said the study's authors.
Researchers studied 77 children ages 10 and 11 to see what effect cell phone conversations had on their ability to make it across the street safety.
"We found that all children in the study were more distracted when talking on their cell and crossing the street," said author David Schwebel, an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's department of psychology.
The study did not address the issue of teens texting while walking, which has lead to a jump in reports of accidents, some of them fatal, after people walked into traffic, or fell off a curb, while texting.
Researchers in the study used a "virtual reality" road. Each child crossed the road 12 times, six times with the distraction of a cell phone conversation, six times without.
The study found that when children were on the cell phones, their attention to traffic -- the number of times a participant looked right or left -- went down 20 percent. A delay in starting across the street right after a car passed went up 20 percent. The risk of getting hit by a car, or the number of close calls (coming within one second of getting hit) went up 43 percent.
"These are novice pedestrians," Schwebel said, "almost like novice (teen) drivers."
Schwebel said crossing a street is actually a very complex task involving judgment and the ability to assess speed, distance of cars and the time needed to cross the pavement.
He said there are some preliminary studies that show even adult pedestrians get distracted while carrying on cell phone conversations. Yet adults are much more adept at navigating the crosswalk than children are, and that makes it even more risky for those youngest of cell phone users to try to do both at once.
So while parents may want their preteens to have cell phones for safety, or because everyone else on the block has one, they may want to heed the advice of this study. Researchers say just as drivers should limit cell phone use while behind the wheel, so too should pedestrians -- especially child pedestrians who are clearly at greater risk while walking and talking.