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Texting while walking emerging as possible danger for pedestrians, drivers

Colleges and UniversitiesYouTubeCraigslist, Inc.Johns Hopkins UniversityUniversity of Maryland Medical Center

The night started out right — good friends, carousing, the lead-up to an out-of-town wedding.

But between festivities, after Nicole King popped into her hotel room to change clothes and was heading back out, she wanted to text her pals to find out where to meet them. Hurrying along in the dark, punching letters into her phone, she tripped over a heavy decorative bench.

"My face hit the bench on the way down," the University of Maryland Baltimore County professor says. "It was bad."

It was six stiches from nose to lip bad. Big, ugly black eye bad. And yet — somehow — not quite bad enough for King to stop walking and texting.

"The moral of the story is don't text while walking," she says. "But I still do it ... all over Baltimore."

Just as people are doing it and doing it and doing it nationwide — to the point that they've earned a derogatory name: pedtextrians. The Urban Dictionary defines the noun as]: "Someone who's texting while walking, and is completely oblivious to what's going on around them. These people have a tendency to walk into things like parking meters, light poles and fall down stairs."

To see the most legendary klutzes, just peek on YouTube.

Behold the woman in the mall so caught up in her texting that she tumbles face-first into a fountain.

Or the young lady who leaves a building, texting away, and fails to notice the steps. Her tumble is captured by a TV news crew doing a live spot.

And who could forget the guy who's texting his way down an alley and nearly runs smack into a wayward bear.

And we're not talking teddy. He missed a full-grown, burly, brown bear.

Though researchers and lawmakers have spent considerable time and energy worrying about distracted driving, distracted walking is low on the radar, but possibly beginning to get a little bit of attention as both an annoying menace and possible danger.

What's apparently the only serious study on the topic came out of Ohio State in 2008. Researchers found the number of emergency room visits attributed to walking and texting injuries doubled every year since 2006. The professor who led the study, Jack Nasar, told The Sun that unpublished follow-up data showed that the numbers continued to double through 2010.

A related study, done more recently at the University of Maryland Medical Center, looked at pedestrians who got hurt while wearing headphones. They found 116 deaths or injuries between 2004 to 2011 — mostly to men under 30 in urban areas.

Baltimore, with its relatively light pedestrian traffic, isn't seeing the number of pedtextrian mishaps as true walking cities Manhattan, or even a D.C. That's according to Dr. Leigh Vinocur, an Owings Mills physician who's spent 15 years working in emergency rooms and is a member of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

She has another theory, too: That people who hurt themselves texting and walking won't necessarily admit it at the ER.

"There's a big embarrassment factor to it," Vinocur says. "They'll say, 'I rolled my ankle' or 'I tripped in a hole' or 'I cut my face walking into a pole.' I'm like, 'How do you walk into a pole?'"

When they don't put their phones down — even as she's treating them — the unspoken becomes pretty clear.

In just the last few weeks, the walking and texting phenomenon has flared in the news media a couple of times.

First, out of Philadelphia, officials set off a frenzy in April by announcing what they said was a first in the nation: a sidewalk lane for cell phone users.

Turns out it was anApril Fool's Dayprank by the city. But plenty of folks were more than ready to believe.

A city spokesman called it a laugh and told the Philadelphia Daily News that the city hoped the deluge of press it got raised some awareness.

Then reports came out that the town of Fort Lee, N.J. was going to start ticketing people caught walking while texting. Turns out, story wasn't quite right — Fort Lee is only going to start ticketing jaywalkers, many of whom are texting. But no one found that out until the story went viral, with smartphone addicts fuming and those annoyed with them toasting the town.

Though Baltimore bicycle messenger Eric Lipstein considers distracted drivers his number-one threat, he's had regular run-ins — almost literally — with texting pedestrians. Once he was cycling past Lexington Market and someone with his nose in a phone emerged from between two parked cars, about to walk into the street. The guy never saw Lipstein, who had to swerve to avoid hitting him.

"I see them all the time, people just stopped in mid-step to text or stopped in the middle of a crosswalk," he says. "They're just wandering off and almost into things."

Just before lunch one day last week, the intersection of St. Paul Streetand 33rd in Charles Village buzzed with activity — students and workers hurried across the intersection from every direction as cars sped by toward downtown. If one couldn't spot someone walking and texting, one wasn't trying. Of those who weren't messaging or chatting, most had phones poised in their palms ... ready.

Michelle May, a Johns Hopkins University junior was in the mix, heading south on St. Paul, pecking away at her pink smartphone. Asked about it, she smiled, a bit sheepishly, and said she had just finished exams and wanted to text everyone to see what they were up to.

The irony was, just a week or so earlier, at the university's Spring Fair, she had signed a pledge to be a safe pedestrian in exchange for a T-shirt that said, "I Practice Safe X-ing."

May admits that she isn't exactly living up to the motto, saying, "I guess I'm still walking and texting, so ..."

Hopkins students tend to need a little Crosswalk 101 — and university officials are the first to admit it.

Recently someone posted a tongue-in-cheek help-wanted ad on Craigslist, posing as Hopkins. It said the university was looking to fill two full-time faculty positions "to equip our students with the basic ability to cross a moderately busy street in an adult fashion."

When school officials saw the ad, they thought about complaining then figured, hey, maybe it could help.

"Most of us concluded that it was not only obviously fake but pretty funny," said spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "So no one was going to be fooled by it and it might do some good."

After a recent history of pedestrian-vehicle accidents near the Homewood campus, university officials are desperate to improve students' walking skills — and getting them to put down the smartphones is a key aspect.

It's important enough that Hopkins plans to launch an expansive safe-walking campaign this fall. Students got a taste of it at Spring Fair, with the "I Practice Safe X-ing" shirts and little yellow stickers made to slap onto cellphones as a reminder not to use them on the move.

In the fall, the school will also be installing what O'Shea called "visible, dramatic reminders" at crossings.

This isn't about subtlety.

"One of our employees tells me that right after the giveaway, he spotted a student crossing the street, texting, completely oblivious to everything around him — and wearing one of the shirts," O'Shea said. "We still have work to do."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Pedtextrians: The greatest hits

Girl wipes out in front of newscast

Young woman tumbles down steps behind a reporter doing a live broadcast.

Nearly 4 million hits on YouTube.

Woman falls into fountain

Woman in a Pennsylvania mall falls face-first into the water.

More than a million views on YouTube.

Texting guy almost smacks into bear

Californian is texting and walking and comes face to face with a bear.

More than 4 million views on YouTube.

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