Teenagers are often warned against texting on their cell phones while they are behind the wheel of a car, since distracted driving can lead to serious automobile accidents.
Many teens, however, are not aware that distracted walking can be just as dangerous. Safe Kids Worldwide encourages teens to watch where they walk.
Tessa Youngner, 16, sees walking to school as a chance to do what she likes best: listen to music.
“There is a lot of work to be done, especially in high school," she says. "When you take harder classes, there is not always a lot of time to listen to music or watch TV or be with friends.”
Andrew Summers, 15, is also used to multi-tasking on the go. “I usually text or go on the Internet while I’m walking, doing stuff like that, but I don’t have music in.”
High school senior Nailah Philips admits she’s never totally focused on the road while walking. “My phone can do everything, and it’s just how it’s like for teenagers. I will listen to music, like if my Mom texts or calls, I’m talking to her.”
But that behavior might be changing, after these Virginia students attended a workshop about the risks of distracted walking organized by Safe Kids Worldwide.
The group’s injury prevention coordinator, Linda Watkins, understands why teens don’t see a problem with walking while texting or listening to music.
“Kids these days think they can really multi-task," Watkins says. "So they think, 'I can listen to my music. I can watch for the traffic, and then I can cross the street all at the same time.'”
But often, they don’t realize how dangerous crossing the street has become.
“There is the problem with the distracted drivers, too," Watkins says. "So you’re a distracted driver, you’re a distracted pedestrian, and that’s just a recipe for disaster. So the pedestrian has to accept some responsibility also when it comes to being safe.”
A workshop Safe Kids offers makes students part of the solution, soliciting their suggestions for how to make more teenagers aware of the danger.
“They said they need PSAs [public service announcements], they need posters, maybe banners on their cellphones or things like that that’s going to remind them,” Watkins says.
Safe Kids Worldwide's director of research, Angela Mickalide, says putting facts in front of teenagers raises their awareness of the problem.
“Today in the United States, 61 children will be hit while crossing the street," she says. "This year, 500 children 19 and under will be killed in a pedestrian incident.”
The nonprofit is fighting distracted walking with a comprehensive approach.
“We’re trying to educate kids and drivers and families that they need to put away their distracting technologies when they cross the street," Mickalide says. "We’re also working very hard to create better infrastructure. We’re building roads, putting in signage, putting in crossroads all around the country and in nine other countries throughout the world. And finally, we’re conducting research on this important issue.”
That research shows distracted walking has become a global problem due to increasing cell phone use, especially in cities.
“For example, in South Africa in the last 10 years alone the percentage of the population who owns cell phones has grown from 17 percent to 76 percent," Mickalide says. "In fact, South Africans have greater access to cell phones than they do clean running water.”
Urbanization is another reason.
“We’re building highways without having the proper education for people in learning how to cross the street," she says. "This is a particular problem in India. And in China we have many people moving from rural to more urban areas, while at the same time we’re not providing them with the necessary education.”
That’s where awareness campaigns come in. Watkins doesn’t ask teens to stop using their hand-held devices or listening to music all the time while walking, just some of the time.
“The 20 to 25 seconds that you are crossing the street is more important than the call or the text [message],” she says.
She says the golden rule of safety remains the same; look both ways once, and then again, before crossing the street.