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driving concerns

Scramble pedestrian crossing at the intersection of Dundas and Yonge Street in downtown Toronto. (2011 File photo)Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

I've watched my 17-year-old son cross busy city streets without looking up once from his phone. I tell him that it's just a matter of time before he walks into the path of a bus while texting his idiot friends. He says there's no such thing as distracted walking and he's fully aware of everything around him. It seems pretty obvious he's absolutely wrong (I've seen him walk into mailboxes) but is there any proof? And is there anything he can be ticketed for? – Brent, Vancouver

Don't want to become one of the walking dead? Keep your phone – and earphones – in your pocket when crossing the street.

"In our studies people are getting hit roughly two or three times more often when they're distracted by devices," says Dr. David Schwebel, psychology professor and director of the youth safety lab at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The distraction of drivers gets more press, probably deservedly so, but a distracted pedestrian is just as dangerous."

In one study, Schwebel's team had adults cross a simulated street while texting, talking on the phone or listening to music. They were told to judge when it was safe to cross.

"In all cases you're at a higher risk at being hit by a car," Schwebel says. "But in one study, listening to music was actually riskier than talking or texting. That really surprised us."

Why's listening to music the worst? It might be because music, whether Yanni or Beyonce, drowns out the sounds of oncoming cars.

"My guess is that listening to cars approaching is part of the decision making, but that's not to say talking on the phone or texting are safe," Schwebel says. "It's a fairly complex task to judge moving vehicles – how fast they're driving and what the intentions of the driver are. Your brain can only handle so many things at once."

In a University of Washington study, researchers stood at street corners and watched the crossing behaviour of more than 1000 pedestrians.

Nearly a third of them were distracted by a device. Texters were nearly four times more likely to do something unsafe while crossing, such as disobeying the don't walk sign or not looking both ways before crossing.

"We suspect distractions are the reason accident rates are going up in the U.S. and Canada," Schwebel says. "It's easy for pedestrians to forget they're entering a roadway and their life is at risk."

So are there distracted crossing laws? No, but pedestrians can be charged under existing laws.

"The law says pedestrians can't leave the curb when it's not safe, but that's kind of poorly defined," says Vancouver police Constable Brian Montague. "You can't just leap out in front of a car, you have to make sure they see you and can stop."

In British Columbia, that fine is $109, the same as crossing the street against the light or once the countdown has started and the red hand is flashing.

The rules vary across the country — crossing is covered by provincial regulations, local bylaws or both.

"This year in Vancouver, eight pedestrians have been killed in collisions. The reasons vary," Montague says. "An issue everyone talks about distracted driving, but distracted walking seems like a growing problem."

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