Challenges of the Killer Smombies

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I have previously written about the dangerous challenges that arise at the intersection of technology and human performance. One central aspect of these hazard-inducing points of intersection is the motor vehicle operation function while texting or using smart phone tools for email and social media access.

TWD (Texting While Driving)

The FCC (The Dangers of Texting While Driving) describes the startling NHTSA statistics:

“The popularity of mobile devices has had some unintended and even dangerous consequences. We now know that mobile communications are linked to a significant increase in distracted driving, resulting in injury and loss of life. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that in 2012 driver distraction was the cause of 18 percent of all fatal crashes – with 3,328 people killed – and crashes resulting in an injury – with 421,000 people wounded.

  • Forty percent of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger, according to a Pew survey.
  • The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.
  • Eleven percent of drivers aged 18 to 20 who were involved in an automobile accident and survived admitted they were sending or receiving texts when they crashed.

Distracted driving endangers life and property and the current levels of injury and loss are unacceptable.Crisis Firestorm Social Intel

To stem this problem, the FCC is working with industry, safety organizations and other government agencies, to inform and educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving and is seeking to identify and facilitate the development of innovative technologies that could reduce the incidence of distracted driving.”

A quick survey of the texting and driving facts reveals a significant and growing disaster.

“Texting while driving is a growing trend, and a national epidemic, quickly becoming one of the country’s top killers. Drivers assume they can handle texting while driving and remain safe, but the numbers don’t lie.

Texting While Driving Causes:

  1. 1,600,000 accidents per year – National Safety Council
  2. 330,000 injuries per year – Harvard Center for Risk Analysis Study
  3. 11 teen deaths EVERY DAY – Ins. Institute for Hwy Safety Fatality Facts
  4. Nearly 25% of ALL car accidents

Texting While Driving Is:

  1. About 6 times more likely to cause an accident than driving intoxicated
  2. The same as driving after 4 beers – National Hwy Transportation Safety Admin.
  3. The number one driving distraction reported by teen drivers

Texting While Driving:

  1. Makes you 23 times more likely to crash – National Hwy Transportation Safety Admin.
  2. Is the same as driving blind for 5 seconds at a time – VA. Tech Transportation Institute
  3. Takes place by 800,000 drivers at any given time across the country
  4. Slows your brake reaction speed by 18% – Human Factors & Ergonomics Society
  5. Leads to a 400% increase with eyes off the road”

However, the human performance disaster extends beyond the parameters of vehicle and equipment operations. Perhaps somewhat more surprising is the growing problem in the simple act of the taken for granted activity of walking.

Texting While Walking

More than 1,500 pedestrians were estimated to be treated in emergency rooms in 2010 for injuries related to using a cell phone while walking, according to a new nationwide study (Distracted Walking: Injuries Soar for Pedestrians on Phones – Cell Phone Use Not Just Dangerous for Drivers, Study Finds).

According to this report “The number of such injuries has more than doubled since 2005, even though the total number of pedestrian injuries dropped during that time. And researchers believe that the actual number of injured pedestrians is actually much higher than these results suggest. ‘If current trends continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015,’ said Jack Nasar, co-author of the study and professor of city and regional planning at The Ohio State University. “The role of cell phones in distracted driving injuries and deaths gets a lot of attention and rightly so, but we need to also consider the danger cell phone use poses to pedestrians.’”

A wide variety of injuries were reported in these reports. The examples include one 14-year-old boy walking down a road while talking on a cell phone who fell 6 to 8 feet off a bridge into a rock-strewn ditch, suffering chest and shoulder injuries. Another example was the case of a 23-year-old man who was struck by a car while walking on the middle line of a road and talking on a cell phone, injuring his hip.

The filmmaker Casey Neistat explores the hazards of text messaging while walking in New York City:

texting while walking

Watch video

Rise of the Living Smombies

According to The Sunday Times (London, UK), pedestrians who are so fixated on their mobile phones and oblivious to their situational environment as they walk about are increasingly known as “smartphone zombies” (or “smombies”).

Dr. Rock Positano (Health Columnist for the New York Daily News) wrote in a Huffington Blog post that:

“Health care providers are seeing an increase in “walking while texting” accidents, with terrible injuries undermining the “viral” explosion of tragi-comic trips, pratfalls and collisions. “Distracted walking” is a matter of concern to public health professionals, slowly joining “distracted driving” as a matter of urgent national attention.

The evidence is indeed slowly gathering, but a good indication of the severity of the growing problem is the almost constant “doubling” of the incidents from one year to the next: this is a geometric progression that amounts to a pandemic which makes the fictional, movie “outbreaks” of designer epidemics and Zombie flicks literally pale in comparison.

Seattle’s intersections were monitored by the University of Washington and they got an eyeful: pedestrians who texted were four times less likely to look before crossing streets, stay in crosswalks, or obey traffic signals.”

Dr. Positano continues:

“Ohio State University studied local emergency rooms and discerned that more than 1500 people were treated for cell phone related injuries, a triple increase from previous years. Cell phone abuse is a close cousin of texting while walking abuse. Cell phone usage while driving has already been addressed by state legislatures in almost every state. Texting while walking has not received the same attention. But that is changing.

ABC News reported back in May 2012 that the reported number of distracted walking accidents doubled each and every year, with 100 percent compounded increases logged in from 2006 to 2007 to 2008. If the ABC stats hold true, a geometric progression of pandemic proportions has reached the point where those scattered “incidents” now cover the technologically advanced world from continent to continent [emphasis added].”

According to Smartphones and the rise of child accidents “the problem with much mobile technology is that it’s not really designed to be used while you’re actually mobile – or at least, not if being mobile demands that you concentrate on something other than your mobile technology.

Like driving, for example. There’s a reason why the use of handheld devices behind the wheel is banned in the UK: research shows the response time of a driver using a smartphone to access social media, emails or texts slows by around 37.5% (far more than after marijuana or moderate alcohol use). But we’re not very good at using mobile technology while walking, either. YouTube has armies of unsuspecting texters slamming into doors, colliding with lampposts, tumbling down stairs or tripping into fountains.

In America, towns have started fining pedestrians who use smartphones while they’re walking. Here, London streets have hosted experiments that have involved attaching pads to lampposts and bollards in an effort to reduce injuries from “inattention blindness”. There is even an app, CrashAlert, being developed at the University of Manitoba in Canada that uses a distance-sensing camera to scan the path ahead and alert smartphone users to hazards by flashing a red square on to their screen.

The issue is that the human brain can only pay attention to about three things at a time – and concentrate effectively on just one of them. Even though the consequences of smartphone distraction are sometimes amusing, they can also be serious.”

The Sunday Times (London, UK) posted reporters to observe more than 1900 pedestrians crossing streets in central London. The reporters found that 1 in 8 people crossing a busy road were in oblivious ‘smombie mode.’ A second observation in a different (yet still busy city intersection at the rush hour) found that 1 in 7 of the walkers were full on smombies. Other observations revealed a typical percentage of smombie walkers of about 15%.

Observing those walking along the busy sidewalks (without crossing a major street) reveled even greater smombie behavior. One major observation sample put the average percentage at 13% with the highest number in one sample of fully 30% of all walkers observed.

Mind the Gap

Historically, it is the Americans who frequently harmed themselves and caused traffic accidents by stepping out in front of moving cars while looking in the opposite (retreating traffic) direction. In fact, painted instructions on London’s roadways urging pedestrians to “LOOK RIGHT Before Crossing” were in part a result of the visiting American’s tendencies. Obviously, the rise of smombies present an exacerbation of this longstanding problem and involving all nationalities. According to The Sunday Times the UK Department of Transportation, 25% of (2014) fatal accidents on urban roads involved a pedestrian who failed to look properly, while the number of accidents caused by drivers and pedestrians failing to look has risen 12% over the past decade.

In the U.S., there has been a dramatic rise in pedestrian deaths attributed to distracted phone usage while walking. One research study done at The Ohio State University found that those aged 16 to 25 are the most likely to be injured or killed.

Dangerous for Children and Teens

Using a mobile while walking down the street is a challenge for most adults, but new figures reveal that children may be even more at risk from life-threatening distractions (Smartphones and the rise of child accidents).

According to Smartphones and the rise of child accidents “the number of children admitted to hospital after accidents in public playgrounds has climbed by about a third in five years, according to NHS data. Experts in both Britain and the US – where a similar rise has occurred – suggest some of the increase may be a result of parents being too distracted by their phones to supervise their offspring properly.

When already distraction-prone children get their own phones, the consequences can be catastrophic. Katherine Littlewood, 15, was hit by a train and killed on a level crossing last year; her iPod, headphones and the the BlackBerry on which she had been texting friends were found next to her body.

And now comes evidence that shows that 11-year-old pedestrians are three times more likely to be hurt or seriously injured on the way to and from school than 10-year-olds – and also, since 11 is the average age at which children receive their first mobile phone, six times more likely to be sending a text when it happens.

A quarter of children surveyed admitted that they had been distracted by personal technology while crossing the road. “There is,” the report concluded, “a clear correlation between the use of technology and the time of serious accidents with children”. We, or mobile technology, need to evolve.”


Smombies are a growing problem disastrous in their own right. There is an urgent need for education and communication urging changes in behavior. To consider what may be going unnoticed in the workplace is another consideration deserving of reflection. Obviously, slip and fall and other accidents increase with the prevalence of smombies. More than just cyber-loafing, costs, distracted smombies present risks for equipment operations, manufacturing, petro-chemical, health care monitoring and patient care, breakage as well as increases of injury and fatalities.

The emergence of smombies also reminds us to think more about human factors and performance in a wide range of applications and situations. We should pay attention and take responsive actions. If we fail to do so the advancing sleepwalking smombies may soon overwhelm us all.


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