Walking, talking on cell phone a dangerous combo

Planning on walking to work, or around the block at lunchtime? You better leave your cell phone behind.

A study by the University of Illinois found that talking on a cell phone is a dangerous distraction while crossing the street -- far more dangerous than listening to an iPod or MP3 player. In fact, the team of researchers found that listening to music caused little or no distraction to their subjects.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell people not to talk on their cell phones," said Mark Neider , a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois' Beckman Institute, in a statement late last week. "Be aware and act accordingly. If you are talking on a cell phone and [are] about to cross a street, maybe tell [who you're talking to] to hold on for a second."

The study did not offer statistics on how frequently people are injured when they walk while talking on their cell phones.

Using virtual reality equipment, the researchers studied three groups of college students. Some crossed the virtual street with no distraction, while a second group listened to music on an iPod and the third group talked on a cell phone.

While none of the students were "hit" by cars in the virtual environment, researchers said that might not have been the case if the subjects had been under the real-world pressure of having to be somewhere at a certain time, forcing them to rush while facing multiple distractions.

"Whereas in the real world, people are often in a rush," Neider said. "They run around like ants marching in New York. Everybody has to get somewhere and they have to be there five minutes ago. It's possible that when you are under this sort of pressure you are more likely to take higher risks in that situation and when you talking on a cell phone you may have problems."

Cell phone distraction - whether it's talking or texting -- has been a big issue for drivers, if not as much for pedestrians.

This fall, a two-day Distracted Driving Summit was held in Washington to try to find ways to deal with the problems caused by people talking on their cell phones while they're driving.

Research from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that nearly 6,000 people died in vehicular crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver in 2008. That accounts for about one-sixth of the 37,000 vehicle deaths reported last year.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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