Walking and texting. Seems simple enough, right? It’s got to beat texting and driving, in any case. But planners and designers around the world are toying with a new idea for wired-in pedestrians: special lanes for people who wish to text while walking.
Admittedly, most implementations of texting lanes have been stunts of one kind or another: the Belgian company who made a lot of noise earlier this summer with the “textwalk” lanes they spray-painted onto city sidewalks were accused of “graffiti” by Antwerp’s mayor; the National Geographic’s text and talk lanes were an advertisement for an exhibit on brain science; and the similar lane in China was part of an amusement park. The most recent news-making texting lane, on a Utah college campus, is primarily “looks and laughs.”
But the idea does raise some serious issues regarding texting and walking. Walking is a more complex process than you might think, and people who text are often walking in unpredictable public spaces. What could go wrong?
Texting pedestrians often miss out on their surroundings. According the National Geographic brain science project involved in the DC text lane, texting while walking can reduce your vision to “less than one tenth of [its] normal range.” They produced a short video showing texters missing out on a newspaper-reading gorilla not ten feet from where they walked. (The video is funny but informative, and can be viewed in the linked text above.)
The take-away is clear: if you can’t see what’s around you, you should stop moving. It may sound funny, but walking recklessly is a serious problem; 21% of reported pedestrian accidents in Hawaii over the course of five years lead to traumatic brain injury, according to Leavitt, Yamane & Soldner.
Too much texting can have other serious effects on your body. The problem getting lot of attention lately is called “text next,” and spine surgeons are sounding the alarms. Basically, the issue is this: your head is heavy, and walking with your head bent toward your phone puts serious pressure on your spine.
This will probably lead to a dramatic increase in spinal conditions up to and including the need for surgery, experts say. Constantly looking down can also lead to severe eyestrain and painful headaches.
Again, all of the texting and walking lanes we’ve seen have been either marketing or educational stunts. Don’t expect them to pop up in your neighborhood anytime soon. Safety experts are more concerned with the dangers of driving and texting than with walking and texting.
That doesn’t make the issue unimportant, though. Texting while walking can have long-lasting, dire consequences; you’re putting yourself at risk of immediate injury, and of developing a long-term condition. Public health experts want the world to know that texting while walking is a genuine medical problem. So while going on your next stroll downtown, keep your head up. Engage with your immediate surroundings. Look up! Do your spine, as well as your fellow pedestrians, a favor.