Pedestrians who talk on the phone put themselves in danger, but the risk is even greater when it comes to children. Now that the summer holiday is over, millions of kids are roaming the streets while talking or texting on their mobile devices.
A study conducted by researchers from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University unequivocally shows how a child pedestrian’s ability to safely cross the road is hindered more during a cell phone conversation than an adult’s.
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83 percent of middle school students carry mobile devices
Crossing the road is not an easy task. According to the study, “it demands pedestrians to integrate cognitive, attentional and motor control abilities.” In order to safely cross the road, “pedestrians must look for approaching traffic, signs, signals, and listen to auditory cues indicating of approaching vehicles.”
Pedestrians are also required to complete several cognitive tasks, such as: estimate the speed and distance of traveling vehicles and assess their arrival. Thus, “visual, auditory or cognitive based distractions, which may draw attention from the crossing task, can cause pedestrians to miss critical information from the environment, and as a consequence, make wrong assessments and be exposed to higher risk of collision,” according to the study.
Furthermore, US statistics show that 20 percent of the third-graders (aged 8–9) own cell phones, 40 percent of fifth-graders (aged 10–11) do, and 83 percent of middle school students (aged 11–14) carry mobile devices.
“Although many children carry cell phones, the effect that cell phone conversations have on children’s crossing behavior has not been thoroughly examined,” BGU‘s Prof. Tal Oron-Gilad said in a statement.
According to the researcher, one-third of the road traffic fatalities in low- and middle-income countries are among pedestrians. “This high level of involvement is particularly meaningful for child pedestrians as the proportion of child pedestrian fatalities is significantly high relative to adults,” she adds.
The study, which was published recently in Safety Science, was conducted at the BGU Virtual Environment Simulation Laboratory, one of the world’s most sophisticated traffic research facilities, which enables researchers to measure pedestrian reactions to virtual reality scenarios. BGU’s pedestrian dome simulator consists of a 180-degree spherical screen aligned with an accurate three-projector system large enough to immerse a participant within its circumference, according to the university.
The simulator experiment was conducted in a virtual city environment with 14 adults and 38 children who experienced street-crossing scenarios paired with pre-determined cell phone conversations. The subjects were requested to press a response button whenever they felt it was safe to cross, while the researchers tracked their eye movements.
“The results showed that while all age groups’ crossing behaviors were affected by cell phone conversations, children were more susceptible to distraction,” Oron-Gilad says. “When busy with more cognitively demanding conversation types, participants were slower to react to a crossing opportunity, chose smaller crossing gaps and allocated less visual attention to the peripheral regions of the scene.”
In addition, the researchers found that the ability to make better crossing decisions improved with age. The most prominent improvement was shown in the “safety gap” – each age group maintained a longer gap than the younger one preceding it.
According to Oron-Gilad, it’s important to take the new findings into account when training young pedestrians for road safety and “increase public awareness with children going back to school.”