Opinion: If you walk and text, you’ll look like a bloody idiot

It’s a common sight on footpaths around the world: pedestrians, heads down, eyes glued to their mobile phone screen as they make their precarious way forward. Some stop without warning, others career into stationary objects. While studies show the number of “distracted walking injuries” has doubled in the US, more recent science claims using mobile phones on the go is also physically changing the way we walk.

The University of Delaware study, published last week, revealed that dialling numbers while walking produces an exaggerated gait, characterised by extra bent knees and fully flexed ankles.

This strange new Thunderbirds-esque chapter in human evolution is believed to derive from the phone user’s natural reflex to prevent themselves from tripping or crashing into unseen objects. Texters adopted an even more cautious kind of shuffle to protect themselves from collisions, it was observed.

Put like this, walking and using your mobile phone for anything other than listening to music or talking to someone seems ludicrous, dangerous and, even worse, downright embarrassing. But given the tremendous addictiveness of these devices, I’ll bet you silly money that silly walks are here to stay.

A New Jersey lawmaker is targeting distracted walking. The proposed measure would ban walking while texting and bar ...
A New Jersey lawmaker is targeting distracted walking. The proposed measure would ban walking while texting and bar pedestrians on public roads from using electronic devices unless they are hands-free.  Photo: AP

In one half-hour lunch break I counted a total of 32 text-walkers in three city locations: Degraves Street, Princes Bridge and Swanston Street, opposite St Paul’s Cathedral. Thankfully, I can report there were no injuries (unless you count RSI).

If you’ve ever been stuck behind a text-walker you’ll know how annoying it can be. Apart from looking silly they behave unpredictably, sometimes stopping suddenly or changing course abruptly while still semi-ensconced in their screen-based reverie.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no saint. Sure, I’ve ambled along and indulged in a spot of text-walking plenty of times. But when I catch myself in the act I try to immediately pull over and finish my business safely out of the flow of foot traffic.

So, what can we do about it as a community?

A few countries have experimented with go-slow “text lanes” on footpaths (although the bulk of these seem to have been devised with civic tongue planted firmly in civic cheek). The typical Australian nanny state answer would be to simply ban it. But that leads to questions about who would enforce the new no text ‘n’ walk laws. Perhaps a new branch of PSOs recruited from hawk-eyed retirees? We could give them uniforms and a snappy name: perhaps PPSOs, Protective Pedestrian Services Officers.

Or, maybe we adopt the successful strategy exemplified by compulsory seatbelts and make protective helmets and kneepads for phone-toting pedestrians mandatory? I can see it now: a slowly moving zombie army of drooling text-walkers, safely bumping their high-vis helmeted way down Swanston Street.

My view is we should adopt a simple code of footpath etiquette. 1. Always pull over to the side of the path and remain still while texting. 2. Walking while talking is OK, dialling while walking is not. 3. After finishing a (stationary) texting session all phone users must count to five and look around them before re-entering pedestrian traffic. It’s simple, really. If you text and walk, you’re a bloody idiot.

Peter Barrett is a Fairfax Media contributor.