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Cell Phones Pose Dangers For Kids On The Road


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Children who talk on a cell phone while crossing a street are at a higher risk to get hit by a vehicle, according to psychologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Cell phones clearly offer convenience and safeguards to families, but they also may pose risk," UAB researchers wrote in their report which will be published in the February issue of Pediatrics. "Particularly, when children attempt to multitask while conversing on the cell phone and have reduced cognitive capacity to devote to potentially dangerous activities such as crossing streets."

The study included 77 children ages 10 and 11, who completed a dozen of virtual street crossings - six times crossing a street while talking on a cell phone to one of the research assistants, and six times without a phone. The children stepped from the "curb," onto a pad with a pressure switch that was electronically connected to a computer, and the system registered the exact moment a child entered a faux street.

Even children familiar with using cell phones or considered to generally be "highly attentive" mistimed crossing streets while talking, according to the study. To be more specific, adolescents who talked on the phone, needed 20 per cent more time to start crossing the street, and they were 43 percent more likely to be hit by a vehicle or have a "close call" in the virtual street, the researchers said. Also, the children checked both ways 20 per cent less often before crossing the street and gave themselves 8 per cent less time to cross safely in front of the passing traffic when they were on the phone.

Factors such as age, frequency of cell phone use or pedestrian experience did not affect safer pedestrian habits, the study found. According to Despina Stavrinos, a co-author of the study and a doctoral psychology student at the UAB, children who had just turned 10 were at a slightly higher risk of being distracted than those who were about to turn 12. But overall, the frequency of a cell phone usage by children, or them acting as pedestrians in real life, did not make any difference in terms of how distracted they were in the virtual environment.

"We found that all children in the study were more distracted when talking on their cell and crossing the street," said a study co-author David Schwebel, an associate professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham's department of psychology.

UAB experts are also planning to continue research in order to determine the way text messaging or listening to digital music devices such as iPods and mp3 players impacts a child's capability to cross a street safely. "Texting requires a stronger motor component than talking on a cell phone," Stavrinos said. "With iPods, there is a reduction in hearing capacity. The study is now ongoing. I would suspect, though, that because auditory [functioning] is an important part of crossing the street, that iPods will distract [pedestrians] to a level that compromises their safety."

In spite of the study's results, both Schwebel and Stavrinos emphasized that they were not against mobile phones and were not trying to discourage children from using them, which they recognized could be an important tool of convenience and safety. They just advise to limit the cell phone use while being in the streets, and pay more attention to traffic.

Just as drivers should limit cell phone use while driving, pedestrians, and especially child pedestrians, in their turn, should avoid using cell phone while crossing streets, concluded the UAB researchers.

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