The ultimate title of ‘man’s best friend’ has been well earned over the last millennia by our canine companions. That is, until recently. A new companion has arrived: It is electronic, it fits in our pocket, and even though its computing power surpasses most ten-year-old desktops, we still underwhelmingly call it a ‘phone’. As these electronic devices become more integral to our everyday lives, this new iteration of ‘man’s best friend’ is now regularly in our hands at the coffee shop, grocery store, at our workplaces, and in our homes. Rather than setting aside dedicated time to operating these devices, they are invited with us wherever we go. This is where a danger exists, because as we rely on our mobile electronic tools more and more, the temptation to multitask grows stronger. The lines are becoming blurred between a safe moment and an unsafe moment to operate these handheld devices, because their use as we complete daily tasks is perceived as more natural every day.
What can be said about our new electronic companions that have not become obvious? Yes, they are a distraction. Yes, they have become necessary. And no, there is no alternative for them in sight. Discovery, communication, entertainment-it’s all there on our devices. For those concerned about dangerous distractions, the expulsion of these devices from society cannot be a reasonable objective. No rational argument can be made to remove these machines from our lives. Limitations on their use, like distracted driving laws, are working towards a solution. But what about other situations where multitasking on a mobile device becomes a distraction?
The real problem with our new electronic best friend is becoming clear. These powerful handheld computers can present a danger to our wellbeing because we seem unable to resist operating them whilst conducting our daily business. Learning which situations are suitable to sneak a quick look down at our devices, and which are not, is a valuable step in understanding the risky situations we put ourselves in every day. So, when is an appropriate time to utilize these mobile tools? If it is too distracting to use a device while driving or cycling, is an everyday task like walking down the street also too hazardous to justify operating our ‘phones’?
In 2018, researchers in British Columbia at UBC Kamloops investigated this concept of distracted walking. Researchers set up cameras to track the prevalence of mobile device use at a busy intersection. They found that over 1/3 of pedestrians were using a device while crossing the street. The analysis revealed that “A significant difference was found between mean gait characteristics of step velocity, cadence, double limb support, and mean step length during normal walking and walking while texting”. Long study short, these distracted pedestrians became an identifiably different type of pedestrian as they used their electronic devices.
Prevention of injuries and fatalities is the reason we design and implement walking infrastructure and traffic accommodation. These safety measures are designed to protect us as undistracted pedestrians, focused on walking, with our eyes generally directed forward. But, could any preventative measure be enough for the new generation of multitasking, tech-savvy, and extremely distracted pedestrians?