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Distracted walking a growing problem

WASHINGTON -- A young man talking on a cellphone meanders along the edge of a train platform at night. Suddenly he stumbles and pitches over the side, landing head first on the tracks.

Fortunately no trains were approaching the Philadelphia-area station, because it took the man several minutes to recover enough to climb out of danger. But the fall, captured last year by a security camera and provided to The Associated Press, underscores the risks of what government officials and safety experts say is a growing problem: distracted walking.

On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, someone is usually strolling while talking on a phone, texting with head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. It's not as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.

Reports of injured distracted walkers treated in hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in seven years and are almost certainly underreported. Pedestrians injured or killed in traffic have spiked, but there is no reliable data on how many were distracted by electronics.

"We are where we were with cellphone use in cars 10 years or so ago. We knew it was a problem, but we didn't have the data," said Jonathan Akins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In Delaware, highway officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks urging pedestrians to "Look up. Drivers aren't always looking out for you."

Philadelphia is drafting a safety campaign. "One of the messages will certainly be 'pick your head up' -- I want to say 'nitwit,' but I probably shouldn't call them names," said Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation.

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About 1,152 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms last year for injuries sustained while walking and using a cellphone or other electronic device, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. That's probably an underestimate, a commission spokesman said.

A Stony Brook University study compared the performance of people asked to walk across a room to a target, a piece of paper taped to the floor, without distractions and again the next day while talking on a cellphone or texting. The group on the cellphone walked slightly slower and veered off course a bit more than previously, but the texting group veered off course 61 percent more and overshot the target 13 percent more.

"People really need to be aware that they are impacting their safety by texting or talking on the cellphone" while walking, said Eric Lamberg, an associate physical therapy professor who conducted the study. "I think the risk is there."

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