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Researchers used a virtual street to gauge the level of distractions posed to pedestrians by cell phones and iPods. The researchers says it is the first study of its kind to use an experimental approach to investigate pedestrian distraction and the first to employ virtual reality (VR) technology to study the topic.

U. ILLINOIS (US)—How apropos that a research team led by two native New Yorkers would take a fresh look at the dangers of trying to cross a busy street while talking on a cell phone or listening to music on an iPod.

Art Kramer and Mark Neider and their colleagues at the University of Illinois report that talking on a cell is in fact a distraction while trying to cross the street but that listening to an iPod is not. The researchers say it is the first study of its kind to use an experimental approach to investigate pedestrian distraction and the first to employ virtual reality (VR) technology to study the topic.

Neider, who is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute and lead author of the paper published recently in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, says people should be aware that their ability to do certain tasks can be impaired when they are using these types of devices.

“I’m not going to sit here and tell people not to talk on their cell phones. But be aware and act accordingly. If you are talking on a cell phone and about to cross a street, maybe tell somebody to hold on for a second.”

The study was done with college students, who were grouped into three categories for performing the street crossing task: no distraction, listening to music on an iPod, and talking on a cell phone. Subjects failed the task either by getting hit by a virtual automobile or when the trial timed out.

While the results showed that talking on a cell phone is a distraction when crossing a street, one result that surprised the investigators was that talking on a cell phone did not cause pedestrian-vehicle collisions. Both Kramer and Neider caution that that finding probably has to do with the experiment’s parameters. There was no motivation in this initial study for test subjects to cross the intersection quickly.

“Whereas in the real world, people are often in a rush,” Neider notes. “They run around like ants marching in New York. Everybody has to get somewhere and they have to be there five minutes ago. It’s possible that when you are under this sort of pressure you are more likely to take higher risks in that situation and when you talking on a cell phone you may have problems.”

Despite the fact this experiment didn’t cause distracted students to have collisions with virtual automobiles, Kramer, a professor of psychology and Beckman researcher, says that result shouldn’t be misconstrued by the general public.

“When you talk to somebody in the street and ask ‘could somebody listen to an iPod or talk on a hands-free cell phone when they are walking’ they say, ‘Walking? We’ve been walking our whole lives. Sure, it’s not a problem,'” Kramer adds. “But it’s not the walking necessarily; it’s actually walking and paying attention to relevant things like automobiles or bicycles.

“That’s why we began this, as a way to look at yet another automatic behavior that we assume is impenetrable. But, with respect to distraction, it is not impenetrable because, when this behavior is in the context of the real world, you really do have to pay attention to what’s going on. We are not, evidently, experts on paying attention to vehicles when we are crossing the street.”

University of Illinois/Beckman Institute news: www.beckman.illinois.edu