Pedestrians who are using electronic devices are increasingly being injured.
WASHINGTON - A young man talking on a cellphone meanders along the edge of a lonely train platform at night. Suddenly he stumbles, loses his balance and pitches over the side, landing head first on the tracks.
Fortunately there were no trains approaching the Philadelphia-area station at that moment, because it took the man several minutes to recover enough to climb out of danger. But the incident, captured last year by a security camera, underscores the risks of what government officials and safety experts say is a growing problem: distracted walking.
On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with head down, listening to music or playing a video game. The problem isn't as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real. Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years and are almost certainly under-reported. There has been a spike in pedestrians killed and injured in traffic accidents, but there are no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.
"We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn't have the data," said Jonathan Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices.
A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30.
State and local officials are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves.
In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks urging pedestrians to "Look up. Drivers aren't always looking out for you."
Philadelphia officials are drafting a safety campaign that will be aimed in part at pedestrians who are looking at their devices instead of where they're going.
When the Utah Transit Authority adopted an ordinance barring pedestrians from using cellphones, headphones or other distracting electronic devices while crossing its light-rail system in Salt Lake City, subject to a $50 fine, the Legislature refused to make it a statewide law. Distracted walking bills in the Arkansas, Illinois and New York legislatures also went nowhere.