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Should Texting While Walking Be Banned in Canada?

by Laurence-Emmanuelle Bédard Published on April 6, 2015

Drivers who text while driving have been stigmatized for years now. However, texting pedestrians can also cause accidents. The dangers inherent in texting while walking are being studied: should we worry about the safety of people who send text messages while walking? Some US cities already prohibit the practice. Should we do the same here?

In 2011 and 2013, in Quebec, 27 pedestrians were injured – five seriously – while paying more attention to their phone than where they were going. Texting while walking seems to be a growing cause of accidents.

"Texting while walking is a very difficult task, much more difficult than you might think. Trying to follow a moving target while reading small print requires great dexterity, composing a communication means I need long-term memory. So there are fewer resources available to be allocated elsewhere," explains François Courtemanche, a postdoctoral researcher, in an article in La Presse.

The scientist tried to determine whether a pedestrian sending text messages while walking is as alert to the surrounding dangers as someone who is not texting. His study found that individuals who are texting are less able to identify the source of danger when look up from the screen. Indeed, compared to someone walking without being distracted, the brain takes 2 seconds to disengage its attention from one task and refocus it on another.

"When I raise my head, my head comes up first, but my attention arrives two seconds later. And it's during those two seconds between looking up andbeing ready for another task, when my attention has not yet arrived, that I'm in danger," Courtemanche told La Presse. This period of a few seconds is similar to temporary blindness.

The Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) says that the number of deaths and injuries among pedestrians has been declining since 2000, but points out that on average eight pedestrians are struck by a motor vehicle every day. According to the SAAQ, the age groups most represented among pedestrian victims are 65 and older and 18 to 25 years. They also state that the leading causes of accidents involving pedestrians are negligence and distraction.

However, is it really appropriate to start a debate about banning texting while walking? It must be said that there are many sources of distractions, in addition to texting. Some people roam the streets lost in a book or their thoughts, practices that can also cause delays in their reaction time in the face of an emergency. There are even applications that allow pedestrian-texters to be more vigilant, one of which uses your cell-phone's camera to play your projected path as wallpaper while you're texting... Pretty clever, you have to admit! Another amusing anecdote: the Chinese city of Chongqing has created a sidewalk for pedestrians texting while walking to raise awareness of the dangers of this practice. On the sidewalk, a big sign says, in English and Chinese: "Use this path at your own risk and peril."

​Without doubt, inattention while walking can cause accidents. However, banning texting will not substantially reduce accidents involving pedestrians, since the causes of injury are both multiple and of a different order. A more effective measure would certainly be a humorous awareness campaign!

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by Laurence-Emmanuelle Bédard

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