Introduction: Distraction on cell phones jeopardizes motor-vehicle driver safety, but few studies examine distracted walking. At particular risk are college students, who walk frequently in and near traffic, have increased pedestrian injury rates compared to other age groups, and frequently use cell phones.
Method: Using an interactive and immersive virtual environment, two experiments studied the effect of cell phone conversation on distraction of college student pedestrians. In the first, we examined whether pedestrians would display riskier behavior when distracted by a naturalistic cell phone conversation than when undistracted. We also considered whether individual difference factors would moderate the effect of the distraction. In a second experiment, we examined the impact of three forms of distraction on pedestrian safety: (a) engaging in a cell phone conversation, (b) engaging in a cognitively challenging spatial task by phone, and (c) engaging in a cognitively challenging mental arithmetic task by phone.
Results: Results revealed that cell phone conversations distracted college pedestrians considerably across all pedestrian safety variables measured, with just one exception. Attention to traffic was not affected by the naturalistic phone conversation in Experiment 1, but was altered by the cognitively-demanding content of some types of conversation in Experiment 2. The content of the conversation did not play a major role in distraction across other variables; both mundane and cognitively complex conversations distracted participants. Moreover, no significant associations between individual difference factors and susceptibility to distraction emerged.
Impact on industry: Results may inform researchers, policy makers, and pedestrians themselves. Educational campaigns might discourage telephone conversations in pedestrian environments.
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