Distractions from Mobile Electronics: Your Attention is a Scarce Resource

Texting while driving

I read an article this week discussing the “I Forgot My Phone” video on YouTube.  For the always-connected folks in the DC area, this is a somber video that seems to be ribbing and admonishing us about our relationship with smartphones.  While the video portrayed people using smartphones in relatively safe places like restaurants, parks, beaches, and bowling alleys, using a smartphone while moving presents a unique danger.  Pedestrians, drivers, and bicyclists often use portable electronics, and this can quickly lead to getting completely lost in one’s own world while on-the-go.  Texting or talking on a cell phone while driving has become such a problem that many states have enacted laws prohibiting or limiting the use of a cell phone while driving (DC, Maryland, and Virginia all have).   While tapping away on a smartphone, I’ve seen people walk into street signs, trip over curbs, walk directly into other people, and cross a street without the right-of-way, directly in front of traffic.  I’ve seen a jogger with music cranked up so loud through his ear buds that he could not hear me yell, “On your left!” as I tried to pass.  I’m sure everyone has witnessed similar events.

We all face a simple truth here: the more you engage in your own electronic world, the less you are engaged in the world around you.

Sometimes this leads to someone getting hurt.  It’s an unsettling fact, maybe, but a moment’s inattention can lead to injuring yourself or others.  A 2011 study by the World Health Organization on distracted driving found that a driver using a mobile phone is four times more likely to be involved in a collision than a driver not using a mobile phone.  A 2011 article by a professor at Ohio State University found that emergency room visits due to distracted walking increased more than 5-fold between 2005 and 2010.  And just last month, a study released by Safe Kids Worldwide hypothesized that the 25% increase in pedestrian injuries among 16-19 year olds over the last 5 years is due to distractions from mobile devices.  So while my personal evidence is only anecdotal, it appears that what I’m witnessing is part of a larger trend.

While we’ve already seen new laws focused solely on curbing mobile device use, there might also be a judicial response to the problem.  In a widely reported case recently decided by the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division, Kubert v. Best, the court held that the sender of a text could be liable for an accident caused by the receiver, if the sender had reason to know the receiver would be distracted due to reading the text message while driving.  While the court did not hold the remote texter liable because of insufficient factual evidence, the court clearly stated that a sender has a duty to avoid distracting the receiver while driving.  The court reached this conclusion by comparing it to other situations where a person distracts someone else, or explicitly encourages the person to behave in a way that is dangerous to others.  The outcome seemed shocking to some, but the reasoning applied in the decision was commonplace.

Reasonable minds can disagree on where to draw the line in these circumstances (in fact, there is healthy disagreement in our office on the Kubert decision).  But the conversation about where to draw the line on distractions from mobile electronics is increasingly one that needs to happen.  Whether you are driving, biking, or walking, your inattention affects those around you.  My own personal safety commuting to and from work depends on the attentiveness of the people and drivers nearby.  So, the next time you are out and about, put the phone away until you get where you are going.