Mobile phone users walk differently to avoid risk of tripping, study suggests

They adopt a cautious and exaggerated stepping strategy.

Mobile phones are causing people to change the way they walk to reduce the risk of tripping, a new study has found.

Subjects were fitted with eye trackers to record where they looked and motion analysis sensors to record how they walked as they used a phone while negotiating a floor-based obstacle similar in height to a roadside kerb.

Researchers from Anglia Ruskin University found that when using a phone, irrespective of how it is being used, people look less frequently and for less time at the obstacle on the ground.

They adopt a cautious and exaggerated stepping strategy, it said, which involves lifting their lead foot higher and slower over the obstacle to reduce the risk of tripping.

Spring weather Apr 17th 2016
(Nick Ansell/PA)

In the study the relative amount of time spent looking at the obstacle reduced by up to 61% when using a phone.

The study found that writing a text message resulted in the greatest adaptions in visual search behaviour and walking style, or gait, compared to reading texts or talking on a phone.

When writing a text the lead foot is 18% higher while clearing the obstacle compared to not using a phone, and is 40% slower.

Similar, but less extreme, results are seen when reading texts and talking on the phone.

Phone stock
(Stefan Rousseau/PA)

It is thought that writing a text may increase visual attention demands, as people look at the keypad to type as well as look at the screen to read what is being written, to ensure it is correct.

Lead author Dr Matthew Timmis, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at Anglia Ruskin University, said: “We found that using a phone means we look less frequently, and for less time, at the ground, but we adapt our visual search behaviour and our style of walking so we’re able to negotiate static obstacles in a safe manner. This results in phone users adopting a slow and exaggerated stepping action.

“Our findings indicate that phone users adopt a cautious approach when faced with fixed objects on the ground.”

The research is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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