WEDNESDAY, Dec. 12 (HealthDay News) -- Almost one in three pedestrians use their cell phones or text while crossing busy streets, which could increase their chances of being hit by a car, a new study says.
Distracted walking, like distracted driving, is becoming an increasing problem and pedestrians need to be educated about the danger of doing so, the researchers added.
"Talking on your cell phone or texting while crossing the street is risky for you and drivers," said lead researcher Dr. Beth Ebel, director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center at the University of Washington in Seattle.
"We need to start exercising judgment about when and where to use our electronic devices," she said.
"If the texting person in the car gets into a crash, they know it's their fault," she said. "Texters are not looking before they cross the street, they are not crossing with the light, they are walking more slowly and they are not looking at traffic. They are putting themselves at risk; they are putting the car that hits them at risk."
The first step is to educate people about the danger, Ebel said. Some cities have considered passing laws against using cell phones while crossing streets, she noted.
"As a pedestrian, you do have an obligation for your safety," she said.
The report was published Dec. 12 in the online edition of the journal Injury Prevention.
For the study, Ebel's team observed more than 1,000 people crossing 20 busy intersections in Seattle during the summer of 2012.
Specifically, the researchers looked for activities that could be distracting, such as talking on the phone, texting, listening to music, talking with others or coping with children or pets.
Almost 50 percent of the observations were done between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., and more than half the people seen were between the ages of 25 and 44, the researchers said.
Most of the walkers were alone and crossed when the light was green and at an intersection. Only one in four, however, observed all the safety rules, including looking both ways before crossing, they noted.
Slightly less than 30 percent of the pedestrians were doing something else when crossing the street. Eleven percent were listening to music, 7 percent were texting and 6 percent were talking on the phone, the researchers found.
People distracted by some of these activities took almost a second and a half longer to cross the road. Although listening to music quickened the time it took to cross the road, people were less likely to look both ways before crossing.
People dealing with pets or children were almost three times less likely to look both ways.
Texting, however, was the most risky behavior. People who were doing it took almost two seconds longer to cross the street than those who weren't, the researchers found.
In the United States, accidents involving pedestrians and cars injure more than 60,000 people a year, and kill more than 4,000, the researchers noted.
One expert thinks that although this study didn't account for the role of these distractions in actual injuries or deaths, it stands to reason that distracted walking is potentially dangerous.
"While there are limitations and it is all observational data, this supports common sense and my bias related to distractions while walking," said Dr. Carl Schulman, director of injury prevention education at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
"Of course it can't go so far as to prove that this poor behavior leads to increased crash and injury risk," he said. "But I don't think it takes a leap of faith to get there."
For more on pedestrian safety, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
SOURCES: Beth Ebel, M.D., director, Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, University of Washington, Seattle; Carl Schulman, M.D., director, injury prevention education, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine; Dec. 12, 2012, Injury Prevention, online