The driving thing gets all the publicity and even the legislation.But I am becoming convinced that another cell phone habit is every bit the menace, or would be if not for the absence of two tons of motorized steel.
I’m talking about the talk ‘n’ walk, the traveling violation, the taking of the European nickname for the cell phone – “mobile” – way too literally.
I walk around downtown Chicago a lot. Invariably, when I see someone staggering, appearing at first to be an obvious candidate for a Breathalyzer, if not an intervention, the cell phone pressed to the ear soon comes into focus.
Your plans for tonight are fascinating, I am sure, Madam ChatterJaw. But did you happen to notice that’s my path you’re wandering into? Did you mean to almost punt the sidewalk saxophone player’s change box?
This is not, understand, one of the standard beefs about people using cell phones in public. Yes, I would prefer that you not ruin my train ride by recounting exactly how you came to choose the pasta entree at lunch. I do not like the way cell phones make it difficult to distinguish people talking to me from people talking on their phones from people talking to themselves. Society needs a clearer demarcation between the mentally ill and owners of the latest Bluetooth headsets.
But my complaint here is bigger: It’s that cell phones make people walk stupid. They become an annoyance and worse – sometimes even a danger to themselves and others, if a couple of recent studies are to be believed.
They violate the No. 1 rule of pedestrianism: Walk a straight line at a steady pace. It can be fast or slow, fine. You can even look up at the buildings as the tourists do. It just has to be, like all traffic behaviors, predictable.
People who are talking and walking seem instead to act out the ebbs and flows of their conversations in a kind of especially insufferable interpretive dance. Dancing with the bars. Lurching in the lulls.
Not long ago, at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, I saw a woman almost get squashed by a turning bus. I tried to yell caution, but “hey” was all I could come up with. The woman beside me, watching in what surely felt like slow motion, did a horror-movie gasp.
The near-decedent didn’t hear, almost didn’t seem to notice as the rectangular tonnage rumbled just past her backside. I made it a point to catch up with her in the next block. Sure enough: cell phone, an incredible convenience right up until the day you really run out of minutes.
You may think this is all anecdotal, that I’m taking a couple of stray observations and inflating them into a trend. First, journalists never, ever do that. Second, and more importantly, I have science on my side.
A recent study by two East Coast professors looked at cell phone usage and traffic fatality data over a 17-year period. Its conclusion: “Cell phones are found to have a significant adverse effect on pedestrian safety.” Further, “policies which would reduce cell phone use by pedestrians while crossing streets … may be warranted.”
And at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, children on cell phones were found to be at a higher risk of pedestrian accidents. According to simulator tests done on 10- and 11-year-olds in a lab, kids on phones were 43 percent more likely to be hit by a vehicle or have a near-miss than their undistracted counterparts.
By comparison, any scientist looking for the benefits of walking and talking would find what? A little bit of time saved? A journey rendered seemingly shorter because you don’t really notice it? One more task checked off life’s endless to-do list?
I do not generally advocate that pedestrians act as if they are behind the wheel. There would be many more fistfights, for one thing, and it would be a lot harder to avoid ever hearing the “Eric & Kathy Show.”
But in this instance, I think the advice is warranted. When you’re on your cell phone, whether you’re on the road or the sidewalk, please pull over. You can do it for safety reasons, or you can do it because you don’t want people thinking you’re the one trying to revive the three-martini lunch.
And when you do it on the sidewalk, you don’t even need to use a blinker.

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