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New research indicates that mobile phones are changing how we walk.

The study, led by scientists at Anglia Ruskin University, investigated how mobile phone use affects where people look  and how they negotiate a floor-based obstacle placed along their walking path.

Whilst wearing a mobile eye tracker (to record where they looked) and motion analysis sensors (to record how they walked), participants walked towards and then stepped over the floor-based object, which was a similar height to a roadside kerb, whilst writing a text, reading a text, talking on the phone, as well as without using a phone.

The scientists found that when using a phone, irrespective of how it is being used, people look less frequently and for less time at the obstacle on the ground. In the study, the relative amount of time spent looking at the obstacle reduced by up to 61%.

And at the same time phone users adopt a cautious and exaggerated stepping strategy, which involves lifting their lead foot higher and slower over the obstacle to reduce the risk of tripping.

The study found that writing a text results in the greatest adaptions in visual search behaviour and walking style, or gait, compared to reading texts or talking on a phone.

When writing a text the lead foot is 18% higher whilst clearing the obstacle compared to not using a phone, and is 40% slower. Similar, but less extreme, results are seen when reading texts and talking on the phone.

It is thought that writing a text may increase visual attention demands, as people look at the keypad to type as well as look at the screen to read what is being written, to ensure it is correct.

Lead author Dr Matthew Timmis, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Anglia Ruskin University, said:

“We found that using a phone means we look less frequently, and for less time, at the ground, but we adapt our visual search behaviour and our style of walking so we’re able to negotiate static obstacles in a safe manner. This results in phone users adopting a slow and exaggerated stepping action.

“Our findings indicate that phone users adopt a cautious approach when faced with fixed objects on the ground. Accidents are likely to be the result of objects suddenly appearing that phone users were not aware of, for example other pedestrians or vehicles.

“China have already started segregating footpaths with special lanes for those using their phones. Initiatives are also being introduced in a number of European countries to place fixed warnings on the ground to alert pedestrians to the presence of roads and tram tracks. These could help to reduce future accidents.”

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