Are you WUI? (Walking under the influence)

Aug 12, 2015

If you're walking down the street reading this on your cell phone, we have bad news.

Science has now proven what you've long expected (if you haven't experienced it yourself): Walking while texting makes you slow down and weave like a drunk.

Conrad Earnest is a research scientist at Texas A&M University. He was inspired to study the health implications of walking while texting on a Saturday morning in Bath, England.

“I was in a coffee shop one Saturday morning,” Earnest says, “and I came out of the coffee shop, and the street was packed and I just got really annoyed walking behind people who were texting, and kind of weaving about and nobody — I didn’t watch anyone run into each other — it just got really annoying.”

Earnest, who was a professor in the department of health at the University of Bath at the time, decided he would turn his annoyance into a research and teaching opportunity. He suggested his undergraduate students study "wexting" or walking while texting, for their dissertation project. Two of his students, Sammy Licence and Robynne Smith, jumped at the opportunity.

“We met, we designed, we discussed. And then the students went off into the city and measured things like curbs and ramp heights, and step heights,” Earnest says.

The team of researchers designed an obstacle course using equipment borrowed from a rugby team, and found a group of volunteers to participate in the study. They gave their volunteers math problems to solve as a distraction, and then sent them off into the obstacle course.

What they found is that the distracted volunteers took significantly more steps, deviated from the path, and slowed down. The upside? They didn't bump into obstacles any more than regular walkers.

“When people walked in the door, they knew they were going to walk on an obstacle course,” Earnest says, “So I think they subconsciously sort of ingrained or put into their head to take a more cautious approach.”

Earnest is convinced, however, that walking while texting is a dangerous thing to do.

“If you look at general statistics you’ll see that teen-related traffic pedestrian injuries are increasing continually, and there’s a big tie with as much as 40 to 50 percent of those being related to listening to music or texting or what we term riskier crossing behaviors when they’re near a street due to what’s called unintentional blindness. They’re looking at their cell phone, they’re not paying attention to what’s going on around them,” Earnest says.

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.