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Gail Short/University of Alabama -Birmingham 

An interactive, virtual environment simulator at the University of Alabama at Birmingham tests how child pedestrians react to passing traffic while talking on cell phones.


Cell phones pose danger to kid pedestrians, study finds

by Julia Hawes
Jan 27, 2009


Drivers are often warned of the dangers of talking on cell phones while driving. But a new study has found that young pedestrians are also at risk of injuring themselves by using their cell phones while crossing the street.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported in the Pediatrics journal that children using cell phones were less attentive to traffic and increased their chances of being involved in vehicle collisions, as tested in a virtual pedestrian environment.

The psychologists set up simulated road crossings in an interactive, virtual environment, collecting data from 77 children, ages 10 and 11. Dr. David Schwebel, associate professor of psychology and one of the chief authors of the study, said that cell phones are becoming more popular and are being marketed to pre-teens and teens.

“We want to emphasize that children should limit their cell phone use,” said Despina Stavrinos, a co-author of the study and a doctoral psychology student at the university. “Put it down. Put it in your pocket. Pay attention to traffic. Parents should really educate their kids about that.”

The study measured four indicators of safe street crossing: hits or close calls; average start delay, or the time after a car passes and a child starts walking; average safety time, or the number of seconds between a child crossing the street and a vehicle passing the crosswalk; and attention to traffic. On all four measures, the study found children tended to behave in “a riskier manner” while talking on cell phones.

Researchers first tested children’s reaction times to traffic without the distraction of a phone. Then, they gave the children a cell phone that only had a functioning “receive” button, mirroring a popular phone model for children which only allows them to call designated contacts, such as “Home” or “Dad.”

Results showed that the number of times a child was virtually “hit” by a car or came close to being injured increased more than 40 percent when they were talking on the phone. There was also a 20 percent change in both the children’s “start gap”—the amount of time it takes to initiate crossing the street—as well as the rate of how often the child looked left and right before deciding to cross the street.

The virtual environment, funded by the university’s Injury Control Research Center, has its subjects stand on a wooden curb, facing a three-paneled screen showing a familiar Birmingham street scene. When the child steps off the platform, they activate a “pressure plate,” triggering an avatar to cross the street at the child’s own natural pace, which has been measured prior to the testing. An animated talking head appears, either commending the participants on their safe journey, or warning them: “Oh my gosh, I think you need to try that again.”

Age, frequent cell phone use or pedestrian experience did not preclude safer pedestrian habits, the study found. According to Stavrinos, children who had just turned 10 were at a slightly higher risk of being distracted than those who were about to turn 12. But overall, the frequency that a child used a cell phone or acted as a pedestrian in real life did not make a difference in terms of how distracted they were in the virtual environment.

The university researchers also conducted an identical study with 150 students from the University of Alabama. Although evaluation is not complete, so far the trends with the young adults appeared to be similar to those of children, Schwebel said.

Despite the study’s results, both Schwebel and Stavrinos emphasized that they were not trying to discourage children from using cell phones, which they recognized could be a tool of convenience and safety. Schwebel thought a public health movement, similar to one behind using seatbelts or regulating cell phone use in cars, might aid in instructing children how to safely use their phones.

Jocelyn Carter, assistant professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, said the study’s results were a “good warning” for parents. Like Schwebel and Stavrinos, she felt it was important for parents to implement safety rules for their children.

“For parents, an important thing is also going to be modeling appropriate cell phone use themselves,” said Carter. “If they talk on the cell phone when they’re driving or walking around, their kids are going to think it’s OK.”