Petextrian Death Trend Threatens America’s Youth

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Zombies are walking our streets. But unlike the zombies we’re used to seeing on TV and in the movies, these day-walking numbskulls rely on digital technology.

According to numerous studies conducted over the past year, pedestrian deaths are at an all-time high. But unlike the street-walking casualties of old, these people are not getting run over by drunk drivers. Due to an overwhelming obsession with their smartphones, and, more recently, the phenomenon known as Pokémon Go, they’re tripping over sidewalks, walking into signs, into oncoming traffic, and sometimes into each other.

Coined “digital deadwalkers” in a series of PSAs that have been distributed via TV and radio since last year which humorously, though perhaps not effectively, attempted to stress the dangers of so-called “distracted walking,” this army of young tech-savvy idiots put themselves in danger with every step they take. After decades of decline, pedestrian fatalities are once again on the rise, but this time, “petextrians” are to blame.

A 2015 study conducted by Ohio State University reported that the percentage of pedestrians killed while using cell phones increased from less than 1% in 2004 to more than 3.5% in 2010. A report from the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that pedestrian deaths have increased 15% since 2009, and walkers distracted as they text on mobile phones are one of the main causes for this increase. Since 2010, two million pedestrian injuries were related to cell phone use while walking. In 2013, 4,735 pedestrian fatalities were recorded.

Cell phone use has increased eightfold over the past 15 years. The rise in deaths caused by a phenomenon called “distracted walking” has paralleled this increase, suggesting that distracted walking deaths and injuries are likely a direct result of increased cell phone use.

The term “petextrian,” coined recently by users of the Urban Dictionary, combines the words pedestrian and texting to describe, in the libretti of one wordsmith, “someone who’s texting while walking, and is completely oblivious to what’s going on around them—people [who] have a tendency to walk into things like parking meters, light poles, and fall down stairs.”

Several cases of horrific petextrian deaths gained publicity in recent months. On Christmas Day, 33-year-old Joshua Burwell of Indiana fell to his death after using his smartphone to photograph a sunset on the edge of a 60-foot cliff while on vacation in San Diego. Nearby lifeguards reported a man who wasn’t watching where he was walking and instead was concentrating on his phone.

Last May, a 68-year-old Texas woman visiting Philadelphia crossed a busy Chinatown street while looking down at her iPad and was promptly hit by an amphibious duck boat filled with tourists. She died of head injuries soon after.

Significant efforts have been made on the part of both the U.S. government and national organizations promoting public safety. The nationwide spike in deaths caused by walking and texting prompted the federal government to offer $2 million in grants to various cities to combat what they called a “minor epidemic.”

One such city, Philadelphia, launched a rather humorous campaign last year called “Road Safety, Not Rocket Science.” Campaign workers urged pedestrians, particularly young people, to stay safe on the streets by giving them the message to “pick your head up and put your phone down,” while issuing over 400 mock tickets to people they found walking “distractedly” around the city.

In June, which was National Safety Month, several nationwide organizations worked to reduce deaths by texting by improving distracted-walking awareness, and last year, the National Safety Council or NSC— America’s leading authority on the endless dangers present in everyday life— published a section on the safety threat of distracted walking for the very first time in its annual Injury Facts Statistical Report.

It’s unclear whether the well-meaning efforts of various do-gooders can truly convince even one of these zombie millennials to look up from their cell phones in time to escape a grisly death.

One problem may be the fact that it’s not just jaywalkers sending tweets who end up in the emergency room. According to some widely reported and rather baffling statistics released by the 2015 NSC report, more than half of unintentional deaths and injuries from distracted walking involving mobile phone use actually occur at home. Apparently all multi-tasking is dangerous, which the NSC has stressed in various publications. A paper entitled “Understanding the Distracted Brain” was included in the NSC’s 2015 Accident Analysis and Prevention Report, describing multitasking as a “myth” due to the fact that it takes our brains a few tenths of a second to switch gears, thus slowing down reaction time when trying to perform two or more actions at once.

Perhaps the most pertinent piece of evidence proving that humans are simply too stupid to walk and text at the same time is the fact that we are in denial that we even do such a thing on a regular basis.

While 78% of adults surveyed in 2015 by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery (AAOS) said they believed distracted walking is a “serious issue,” only 29% admitted to having ever engaged in such activity themselves. Three-fourths of Americans stated that only “other people” walked while distracted, and, similarly, while 85% claimed to have witnessed people using smartphones while walking, only 28% said they’d ever done so on their own.

The trend in the AAOS study continued with 90% of people arguing that they frequently saw others talking on the phone while walking, and only 37% admitting to have done so themselves.

What’s more, people don’t seem to take the issue seriously—and really, how could anyone? While 46% of Americans surveyed by AAOS said they thought distracted walking was dangerous, the exact same number felt that it was just “embarrassing, in a silly way.” Half of all millennials ages 16 to 34—and 22% of people of all ages—said they thought distracted walking was, quite simply, “funny.”

One can only hope that improved public awareness of the petextrian danger phenomenon will eventually convince people that waiting to text, tweet, or snap a selfie till one can sit down in a safe place is the right thing to do. Don’t be a petextrian, guys. Even though not texting while you walk around might seem about as uncool to you as riding a bike with a helmet, it just might keep you alive.

By Kiki Genoa

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