July 29, 2015 -- Think people who text while walking are a hazard? If so, tread lightly.
A new study suggests that people walk more cautiously when they text, and they're no more likely to trip over obstacles than those who don't use their mobile phone while walking.
The catch is that the study was done in a lab setting. A real-world stroll might not go nearly as smoothly.
Researchers at the University of Bath and Texas A&M University created an obstacle course that resembled a street scene, complete with short vertical posts, steps, trip hazards, and two dummies to represent pedestrians.
They recruited 30 people to take part in the study -- participants who were between 18 and 50 years old and had owned a mobile phone for more than a month. Each person was asked to complete the obstacle course three times: once while texting, once while using a math quiz app, and once without any distractions.
The researchers analyzed how the participants walked using motion-capture technology and timed their progress.
Slow and Steady
The results, published in PLoS ONE, showed that when participants completed the course while texting or using a math app, they were more likely to walk more carefully.
They took longer to complete the obstacle course and tended to lift their feet higher to clear obstacles when distracted by text messages or an app, compared with when they completed the course with no distractions.
If they made contact with a barrier, the researchers counted that as tripping. But there was no significant difference in barrier contact when subjects were distracted by text messages or apps, compared with being undistracted.
The researchers concluded that their results suggest that people who walk and text "adopt a 'protective' gait" to lower their risk of having an accident.
Not the Real World
This small study adds to the understanding of how texting affects the way people walk. But the laboratory setting it took place in is different from real life -- so the results may not be valid in reality.
For example, in the study, the participants had to reply to a standardized text message, whereas real-life texts can stir emotions (an argument with a partner, say), which might affect attention differently.
And although mobile phone-wielding participants may have stepped more gingerly off the platform (surrogate pavement), we can't be sure that their cautiousness, in a normal street environment, would extend to looking out for oncoming vehicles.
The researchers also suggest that the participants may be more familiar with walking and texting, and further research could look into older people, who may be at higher risk of tripping and falling.