What Happens When People Text on an Obstacle Course

By Elizabeth Preston | July 31, 2015 9:40 am


Exercise scientist Conrad Earnest was dodging some oblivious pedestrians in England when inspiration struck. He was trying to walk down the sidewalk, but all around him people were weaving back and forth as they focused on their smartphone screens. Earnest suggested to two of his students that they study the dangers of texting while walking. Specifically, they could ask whether texters are more likely to trip and fall—perhaps wishful thinking on Earnest’s part as he walked among them.

The two University of Bath undergrads, Robynne Smith and Sammy Licence, dove into the project. A recent study by other researchers had looked at people who were texting while walking in a straight line. But for this study, they’d try to provide a challenge that was closer to a real-world sidewalk. Subjects would walk an obstacle course that included stairs, a curb, and even fake pedestrians.

The researchers recruited 30 subjects who ranged from 18 to 50 years old. First they familiarized their subjects with the obstacle course. Subjects would make a big zigzag around a room. On the way they would have to step over a “curb,” walk along a slightly raised platform, go up two steps, and pass between a pair of soccer dummies (below, in blue).

Reflective markers stuck on subjects’ sneakers and waistlines let the researchers track their steps with 3D motion-capture cameras. Everyone completed the course three times. They walked it once with no distractions. Another time, they walked it while responding to a standardized set of text messages on their own phones. And in case that wasn’t hard enough, they walked the course while using their phones to answer a mental math quiz.

Whether subjects were simply texting or doing onscreen math problems, the results were the same. People on their phones were roughly 25 percent slower to finish the course.

While they tapped away on their screens, subjects also took shorter, more frequent strides. They spent longer navigating the stairs. And they took higher, more cautious steps over obstacles. Overall, the researchers called this a “more conservative locomotion strategy.”

Earnest is now at Texas A&M University. Despite his initial hypothesis—or hope—people didn’t seem any more likely to trip and fall while on their phones. The researchers measured this by counting how many times subjects bumped into obstacles. There was no difference between texters and non-texters, suggesting that the “conservative” strategy was working. The researchers also failed to see people weaving on their zigzag course.

Still, Earnest wishes people would knock it off. If your text message or email really can’t wait, he suggests, how about pulling over? That way you won’t slow down and get in everyone’s way.

On the other hand, if you wipe out, there are some scientists who may be eager to study you.


Image: top by Simon Birch (via Flickr); bottom courtesy of Conrad Earnest.

Licence S, Smith R, McGuigan MP, & Earnest CP (2015). Gait Pattern Alterations during Walking, Texting and Walking and Texting during Cognitively Distractive Tasks while Negotiating Common Pedestrian Obstacles. PloS one, 10 (7) PMID: 26222430

MORE ABOUT: Gadgets, Psychology
  • OWilson

    I’m starting to wonder about this Iphone, Kardashian generation.
    It seems even the most common sense observations are a mystery to them.

    “Social Priming” (was effective advertising)
    “Do Trees Make us feel Better?” (love Central Park)
    “Can a computer have good taste in Art?” (yep, the same taste as the guy who programs it!)

    and, here, another study that shows people using their phones were slower to get where they were going?


    I think we are producing a race of idiots, who could never survive real adversity.

    Darwinism will always take care of it, but I can’t wait that long :)

    • Emily Dai

      I was reading while walking once, and I ran into a pole :/

      • OWilson

        A ten year study shows that by re-locating the nations poles, just a few inches, mishaps like yours could be greatly reduced.

        It would also create jobs!

    • Kracken

      I’m sure you’re aware, but often in science, problems are broken into small component parts so they can be easily tested. That’s nothing new. But sure, blame millennials! :)

      • OWilson

        The term “common sense” is no longer appreciated. Too “simplistic”. It is no longer taught at home, or in schools.

        Sounds too ‘right wing”

        Millennials can appreciates it however if you disguise it as “indigenous native folk lore”, passed down from tribe elders,lol

        The time and money would be better spent on analyzing why we killed 100,000,000 million or so just a generation or two ago.

        It might help them prepare to handle the 75% of the world that is determined to obliterate Western Civilization.

      • Michael Holdcraft

        Talk about a flawed study, this is it. First problem, you let the subjects know they were being tested. Second, you made them familiar with the testing course. The result people texting were slower because they were being more careful than they might if under normal (non-testing) conditions. What a waste of time!!!

  • crocaduck .

    Yes, texting while walking is almost akin to closing one’e eyes. As someone who has been a pedestrian for some 62 years, the photo accompanying the text is revealing. In my mind, there are several faux pas the woman is making.
    1) texting or doing anything visually while walking (I’ve seen people reading books while walking!), is a no no. Even though people move slower, I think there is still a danger in wiping out. Walking takes some concentration.
    2) one should never go down stairs without either having a hand on a railing or be within reach of one. Imagine if mom took a tumble on those ‘soft’ stairs? To me the stairs don’t seem to follow the 7/11 rule for public buildings: a 7″ rise and a 11″ run for the steps. I’ve noticed that big government buildings have huge, architecturally hip stairway approaches but have no handrails anywhere; some do in the middle of the stairway though. Judging from the photo, I would guess there is no handrail midway.
    3) having one’s hands full will create a balance problem or impede the ability to brace oneself if there is a fall.
    4) I’m guessing most people don’t have good strength in their legs so recovering from a slip is less likely.
    5) I would also guess the footwear the woman is wearing is not really good for walking in terms of grip, traction and proper support. Well, if you walk 300 metres from your car to wherever, why bother with proper footwear.
    6) now add rainy weather or winter and the hazardous level goes up. And buying winter footwear that are non-slip is virtually non-existent.
    7) where I live, falls account for almost 40% of serious injuries incurred !

    • OWilson

      You are venturing into the science of ergonomics, one of my favorites!

      It’s amazing how standard practice and design are subject to “hip” noveau interpretations. Your point about the risers and footers on stairs is a typical example, something odd, even dangerous, about going up, or coming down, if they don’t conform to well established standards.

      Door handle that can rip pockets, screen door handles that can rip off a nail, and expensive faucets that have a razor sharp under spout ready to skin your knuckles if touched.

      And of course, chairs. How many designs are there, and how many can actually be sat on comfortably? We only have one skeleton, :)

      I’ve been responsible (and still am) for many office layouts, and I can tell you, it is always a fight to stick to what is practical, efficient and works best for optimum access and traffic flow.

      Every time I’ve given in, bad things have resulted, and the job has to be done again!

      I think this sort of thing is an excellent filter for conservative, as opposed to progressive attitudes.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Think of it as evolution in action.



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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