Put Away the Cell Phone and No One Gets Hurt

cell phoneLiterally.

Walking down the street staring at your phone is a good way to get injured. And that goes double or triple if you’re skateboarding or riding a bike while texting or reading.

I’ve seen several recent posts on Facebook by people who were tired of trying to avoid running into clueless people whose eyes were on their phones and not on the people around them. And you don’t want to get me started on the people jaywalking while texting.

And yes, this applies to those of you who walk down the street reading old-fashioned paper books. It’s not a technology thing. It’s not even a courtesy thing. It’s that not paying attention to the world around you when you’re in a public place can be dangerous as well as rude.

It’s not just that you’re more vulnerable to phone thieves and muggers when your attention is on that little screen, it’s that you’re also more vulnerable to accidents of all kinds. Attorneys from Nehora Law Firm advocate that crime is down a lot in the major cities, but accidents aren’t.

And while I’m on the subject: take off those damn earphones. You need to hear what’s going on around you as much as you need to see it.

Awhile back, some women posted on Facebook that they use headphones or earbuds to avoid hearing catcalls when walking down the street. I understand the desire to avoid hearing that crap, but cutting off one of your senses is not a solution. For one thing, you need to hear what’s being said so you can tell whether it’s just an annoyance or a real threat.

For another, you need to hear what or who is coming up behind you. That guy on the skateboard staring at his phone may not see you in time. Ditto the bicyclist. And if you drive at all, you know that drivers often don’t see pedestrians, bicyclists and the like even when they’re trying to be conscientious about it.

The smallest cars weigh at least a ton. That’s a lot more than you weigh. You really don’t want to collide with one.

street pumpkin

A very large hole in a nearby street

Plus the road itself can be a problem. I live in a neighborhood that ranks very high on walkability. You can run almost all your errands on foot. But the sidewalks and the streets are old, frequently uneven, and occasionally damaged in unusual ways (see picture). If you’re not paying attention, you could trip and fall very easily.

I know phones with GPS are great for helping you find your way in an unfamiliar place. But you still shouldn’t walk down the street staring at the screen. Get out of the way, in a safe location, and figure out where you’re going. Then walk without staring at the phone.

The same thing is true if you’re using an app for finding public transit or texting to coordinate meeting up with a friend.

Part of the problem is that we haven’t quite figured out how to properly integrate mobile phones (that are so much more than phones) into our lives. It is still amazing to us all that we can be in touch with others so easily, can look up a location when we’re lost, can even find out what that funny building is while walking down the street. Of course we want to do those things.

But even though you can use your phone to do much of what you need to do – for either work or social reasons – while walking down the street, you shouldn’t. Our bodies, including our minds, have not evolved to do that. Some mental activities – writing and reading in particular – require so much attention that we tune out the things that are happening around us.

Paying attention is the first rule of self defense, and self defense includes accident prevention. Any martial artist will tell you that. You may also notice that serious martial artists don’t walk down the street staring at their phones and rarely bump into other people on the sidewalk. Basically, good martial artists are experts at avoiding trouble.

I might also add – as someone who walks a lot – that there are many things to pay attention to (good and bad) out there in the world. Some people’s yards are amazing. Street art shows up in the oddest places. Some homeless people will inspire you or break your heart. You need to know about all those things.

It’s time for all of us to stop letting our devices keep us from being engaged with each other in public. Start by changing your relationship with your phone and your earphones. Please.



Put Away the Cell Phone and No One Gets Hurt — 14 Comments

  1. The most dangerous people of all are bikers going the wrong way on a one way street, racing digitally, with ear buds in and looking at their phones. I’ve been run down crossing at corners with the lights in the pedestrian cross walks and then sworn at for being in the biker’s way and not paying attention to him.

    The relentless walking and texting / reading texts has entirely taken over even Havana in this last year, now that Verizon’s there. The phones can’t connect to the internet, but now everyone has personal phone communication with their vast and dense webs of family and friendships, and even the abuelas are so there!

    In all my previous Cuba trips the state phone centers were the busiest places everywhere, with people lined up for blocks at times to make phone calls. They were like community centers where hustlers hustled and others just hung out, waiting for something to happen. Now they’re dead street space, while all around them people are working and texting.

    • OMG, I cannot imagine biking and looking at your phone at the same time. That sounds very dangerous.
      The Bronte sisters are reported to have read books while they walked. The neighbors remarked on it.

      • I’ve seen people doing that bike and phone thing, too. And they usually aren’t wearing helmets, either. Shudder.

        And I don’t approve of reading books while walking, either, even in a sedate place. If you’re paying attention to the book, you’ll step in a hole or bump into someone. If you’re paying attention to the road, you won’t get anything from what you’re reading.

        Why is it that people don’t enjoy walking and taking in everything around them? It’s one of my favorite things.

  2. btw, this is my first venture onto the internets, etc. in two weeks. My phone was shut off when getting on the plane on the 1st, and I left my other digital devices at home. Camera, pen and moleskine, and conversations — brilliant conversations with fellow travelers and old friends — were all the social media necessary. It was a dense, intense, relentless cascade of actions, events and people so I was unaware that I was 100% unconnected until on the plane to return home and suddenly everybody was plugged in again, taking advantage of the plane’s wiffy (in Cuba wi-fi is called “el wiffy”).

    • We really have to figure out how to balance these things without being forced to by circumstance. Being connected to the people you’re around is a wonderful experience and we need to remember to stay off our devices when we’re in a situation that allows that. But as someone who grew up in a small town and who has lived in places where there was no one to talk to about anything more pressing than the weather much of the time, I know the value of being connected to interesting people who live elsewhere. The fact that we have the phone doesn’t mean we have to use it all the time. The fact that we’re around people doesn’t mean that we don’t need to be connected to other people some of the time.

      I remain hopeful that we’ll figure this out after these first years of having that kind of connection available. But I’m going to go hear Sherry Turkle talk about her thoughts on the subject this year.

  3. This link should be at the bottom, but pasting only works at tge top on my pbone. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=34FyWCutqvw

    Isn’t it forbidden to drive and use a handheld phone at the same time in the USA? Here we have a traffic law about that, and it goes for bikes as well as cars. Pedestrians don’t fall under that law, as they only endanger themselves if they act stupidly.
    Dutch bikers don’t wear helmets either, and we’ve got the lowest accident statistics in the world, even though practically everybody bikes (from 9 months old babies who can sit up enough for a kiddyseat on a parent’s bike*, to the hale elderly even if they’re over 90). Designing the infrastructure in a way that keeps the most vulnerable traffic partcipants safe by keeping pedestrians and bikers away from fast and heavy traffic is much, much more effective. Making a few traffic laws which improve safety helps too, like the ones about wearing seatbelts, using a helmet on a motorbike or moped, and only using handsfree phones while driving, help too; but sensible infrastructure is paramount. Helmets help very little – though it gives the idea you’re doing something about safety, it makes very little difference to the traffic-accident deaths statistics for cyclists.

    Sorry, I’ve recently been reading up on the information about bicycle safety issues, and it’s a bit of a sore point with me at the moment why, when all the information and the statistics clearly show what the best way is to reduce traffic injuries and deaths for the most vulnerable traffic participants, people still consider helmet laws a good idea, and think improving their infrastructure isn’t attainable. It isn’t; in 1950-1970 the Netherlands was switching to cars as fast as we could, just like all the other richer countries. Then in the seventies there was a public outcry over the rising deaths of children in traffic accidents, followed by an oil crisis. Those two things led to a deliberate policy change, lessen our dependency on foreign oil and to improve traffic safety for the most vulnerable. The result is traffic deaths have decreased from 3000 (of whom 400 kids under 14) in 1973 to about 400 in 2010 (of whom 186 were cyclists – mostly elderly, and 14 kids under 14). This while the population grew from 14.5 to 16.5 million, and travel by bike increased until now about a quarter to a third of all trips by everyone are mad by bike. It took about 20 years of investing in safe infrastructure to get such very good results, but in the end it’s a lot cheaper to invest in good biking infrastructure – bikes take up a lot less space than cars, both when riding and when parking. One car parking space can park 10 bikes – think what space would be freed up if only a quarter of all the cars parked in a city center could be replaced by bikes! The town center gets a lot less noisy and polluted that way, too, and much more enjoyable to spend time in. And that is quite possible, as we’ve proved bere in Holland.
    Sorry, I’ll get off my soapbox now. If anyone wants to check on my facts, tgere’s an Englishman living in the Netherlands, who works at a bike shop and gives biking tours, who’s written a lot of articles in English about this, translating the statistics and linking to the original documents; his name is David Hembrow. If you search on his name you’ll probably find some better documented articles and explanations in English, or you could use this as a starting point: http://www.hembrow.eu/studytour, as he links to a lot of information from there.

    * Just for fun, one link to a song on youtube featuring typical Dutch babies having fun biking with mom or dad, because it always makes me smile.
    (The link is at the top).

    • I meant it isn’t unattainable to achieve safer infrastructure; sorry, proofreading on my phone is nigh impossible.

    • You’re absolutely right about the infrastructure issue. Here in Oakland, Bike East Bay lobbied successfully to get better bike lanes and other bicycle-safety-related improvements and construction is underway now. That’s good from my pov, since I don’t like to ride a bike on streets with heavy car traffic and I’d also really like to keep bikes off of sidewalks (unless they’re ridden by small children or people are going very slowly) since a collision between a bicyclist and a pedestrian can cause injuries, too.

      And yes, it is illegal in most states to use a handheld phone while driving or biking, but it is a law that is frequently ignored. Also, studies show that even a hands-free phone can distract drivers, riders, and pedestrians. Apparently talking to someone not present takes more of your attention away from driving or watching the other pedestrians than talking to someone who is present. That might be because the person next to you is also watching the road, etc.

      US cities are laid out for the car. Changing the infrastructure will take a lot of effort. It needs to be done, and to include a heavy emphasis on public transit, but it’s going to be a long time coming. Even in an oil crisis, gas is cheaper in the US. I wish we’d learn a lot of things from the Netherlands, including how to deal with sea level rise, but our politics seem to be mired in addressing things that aren’t real problems and ignoring the real challenges we face.

      Regardless of infrastructure, people need to pay attention when they’re out among other people, whether on foot, on bikes, or in cars. Other human beings are unpredictable. I once took a fall off a bike because a jogger moved left just as I was passing him. We were on a hike/bike path and I assumed he wouldn’t move because joggers tend to be consistent. I wasn’t hurt badly and I didn’t hurt him — thank God — but if he’d heard me coming or if I’d called out “on your left”, it wouldn’t have happened.

  4. Sorry for going off on a tangent last night.
    I do agree that if there are people around you, or there’s anything nice to enjoy in the surroundings, it’s much better to pay attention to those things and put the mobile phone away when you’re walking or biking.
    Conversely, if there is any possibility of danger in, from or to the surroundings (whether collisions, uneven pavement, cats or muggers) it’s even more important not to be distracted by your phone. That goes for all modes of transport! Especially if where you live the walking routes aren’t built to naturally keep you safe, not being distracted by your cell phone is important.
    Besides, isn’t one of the main reasons for walking or biking instead of taking the car because you want to enjoy the day and your surroundings?