For years, we've taught our children to look both ways before crossing the street. However, the thought processes involved are far more complex than the simple rule implies. Children must assess oncoming cars, judge how far away they are and the speed at which they are approaching, judge the distance across the street, and decide whether they have sufficient time to complete a safe crossing. Add a cell phone conversation to the mix, and you have the makings of an accident.

Since it is estimated that in 2009, a little over half of 8-12 year olds will have cell phones, researchers at the University of Alabama looked at the impact of cell phones on the judgment and safety of children ages 10-11 while they crossed streets.

The investigators were interested in the impact of age, attention, oppositionality (having the tendency to ignore the accepted rules of behavior and to refuse to follow instructions — such as to look both ways), and experience with cell phone use as additional contributors to pedestrian distraction. They chose 10-11 year olds as developmentally independent in street crossing, and as an actively targeted market for cell phone makers.

Adults might consider modeling safe behavior for their children by forgoing their own cell phone use when crossing streets, when driving, and when engaging in other activities that need full attention.

In order to avoid risk of actual injury, the investigators created an interactive, virtual reality environment that enabled them to produce representations of real world behaviors. Large screen monitors displayed traffic situations to which the children responded by stepping on a pressure plate when they felt it was safe to cross.

This action created an on- screen avatar (virtual representation of the child) that simulated the child's speed in crossing. Feedback from successful crossing, collisions and close calls were all given to the child via their avatar. The children practiced with this technology ten times before the actual study and then participated in six crossings during which they were not interrupted by a phone call and six when they were. The cell phone calls were from research assistants who engaged the children in light conversation. The order of crossings with and without calls was random.

Researchers gathered information about the children's behavior, attentiveness, their experience with cell phones, and the extent of their experience as pedestrians from parental questionnaires and interviews.

Seventy-seven children, ages 10-11 participated. All were free of motor or visual disabilities. Gender distribution was equal and the cohort was culturally representative of the community.

Researchers used the following to determine how safe a virtual crossing was:

  • The average time in seconds after a car passed before the child initiated crossing
  • The average amount of time between the child's safe crossing and the arrival of the next vehicle in the cross walk
  • Hits or close calls, instances when in real life the child would have been struck by the vehicle or when there was less than a second between the completed crossing and the arrival of the oncoming vehicle
  • Attention to traffic, meaning the number of times the children looked both ways before beginning to cross the street
Scores for each of these four parameters were averaged over the six non-interrupted crossings and the six interrupted crossings.

The researchers concluded that cell phones do distract children when crossing the street. Increased experience with cell phones, increased pedestrian experience, or highly attentive children did not significantly decrease the risk.

The children who performed the best were those who made several undistracted crossings before being distracted. The children whose initial street crossings were interrupted by phone calls had poorer safety results.

Researchers raised the concern that even younger children, under age 10, with less pedestrian experience and less well-developed complex thinking skills would be at higher risk than the study population. Additionally, this study, published in the February, 2009 issue of Pediatrics, did not include other potential distracters such as text messaging, playing games on the phone, and using MP-3 players during crossing. More research is needed in these areas.

Cell phones and other mobile technology have become an established part of our lives, and the market is targeting younger children. There are safety advantages to having access to these technologies, but, as this study shows, there are also dangers. As parents, we have yet another teaching point in our litany warnings and instructions. Adults might consider modeling safe behavior for their children by forgoing their own cell phone use when crossing streets, when driving, and when engaging in other activities that need full attention. Parents are encouraged to talk to their children about safety issues, teach them strategies of ending conversations at critical times, and encourage them to prioritize more clearly the ways that they use their mobile technology. Parents may also consider limiting cell phone minutes to help their children make active decisions about the need for that call.