By Randy Dotinga
TUESDAY, June 25 (HealthDay News) -- Pedestrians are becoming more likely to be injured while using their cellphones and an estimated 1,500 were treated in U.S. emergency rooms in 2010 as a result, a new study finds.
It's impossible to know how many of the injuries could have been avoided if pedestrians weren't using their cellphones. The study also doesn't determine whether the injuries are on the rise simply because more people are using cellphones.
Whatever the case, study author Jack Nasar said the findings show that cellphone use isn't just a danger to drivers. It's also a hazard to those who are only strolling.
"Stop walking when you're going to take a cellphone call or text. Don't do two things at once," advised Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University who studies cellphones and distraction.
Nasar and colleagues previously reported that pedestrians on public streets are more likely to have close calls with cars if they are using their cellphones. In the new study, the researchers sought to understand the risk on a national level by examining a federal database of emergency room visits from 2004 to 2010.
The investigators found that the estimated number of pedestrian injuries linked to cellphones -- including those that had nothing to do with cars, such as walking into something -- varied from as low as 256 to as high as 597 between 2004 and 2007. The numbers then jumped to 1,055 in 2008, 1,113 in 2009 and 1,506 in 2010.
Deaths are not included in the study. It also doesn't break out injuries by seriousness; some injuries were minor.
The study gives details about some injuries that have been reported. In one case, a 21-year-old male suffered a sprained elbow and spinal sprain when he was hit by a car while on his phone. In another, a 28-year-old man walked into a pole and lacerated his brow. And a 14-year-old boy fell several feet off a bridge into a ditch, bruising his chest.
People under 31 were among those most likely to be hurt while walking and using a cellphone, with those aged 21 to 25 sustaining the most injuries, followed by 16- to 20-year-olds. Men were slightly more likely (53 percent) than women to be pedestrian victims.
The estimated numbers of injuries to pedestrians on cellphones were roughly equal to those of drivers who were on cellphones. Even at the height in 2010, however, the estimated injuries accounted for fewer than 4 percent of all estimated injuries to pedestrians.
Nasar said the estimates in the study may greatly underestimate the risk of cellphone use to pedestrians.
John Lee, a professor with the department of industrial and systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies distracted driving, said the new research has weaknesses. "It could be that cellphones are associated with a greater number of injuries simply because it is more likely that people are using a phone at the time," he said, "and it is hard to know if cellphone use actually causes these mishaps or is even associated with them."
Still, Lee said, "this research is consistent with other studies that show a cost of multitasking. Technology tempts us to try to do many things at once, but our ability is severely limited."
What should be done? Study lead author Nasar called for more awareness, but he doesn't support laws banning use of cellphones by pedestrians such as there are in some states for drivers.
The study appears in the August issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.