Image: Oblivious texting
Ariel Skelley  /  Getty Images stock
ER doctors warn: Don't text while you walk, ride, cook — or scoot about on a Segway.
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
updated 7/30/2008 3:49:01 PM ET 2008-07-30T19:49:01

Apparently, the warning applies to everyone, from college student Danielle Gonzales to Barack Obama’s adviser, Valerie Jarrett: Don’t walk and text at the same time.

Gonzales, a 19-year-old sophomore at San Diego State University, admits she’s stumbled more than once while sending texts on the street.

“I’ve definitely tripped over things sometimes like the little cracks in the ground,” she said. “I have to remember to look up.”

And Jarrett confesses she fell off a Chicago curb several weeks ago while her thumbs were flying on her Blackberry.

"I didn't see the sidewalk and I twisted my ankle," Jarrett said. "It was a nice wake-up call for me to be a lot more careful in the future, because I clearly wasn't paying attention and I should have."

Both got off easy and didn't need medical attention.

But in an alert issued this week, the American College of Emergency Physicians warns of the danger of more serious accidents involving oblivious texters. The ER doctors cite rising reports from doctors around the country of injuries involving text-messaging pedestrians, bicyclists, even Rollerbladers and equestrians.

One ER doctor in Texas says she’s treated people injured as they texted while riding Segways, the two-wheeled transporters popular in some tourist locations.

“They’ll be holding onto the Segway with one hand and their cell phone with the other,” said Dr. Angela Gardner, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

She said she usually has to hear about the cause of the injuries from snickering ambulance crews, not the patients themselves.

“People don’t want to admit they were doing something so silly,” Gardner said.  

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Two deaths tied to texting accidents
Most injuries involve scrapes, cuts and sprains from texters who walked into lampposts or walls or tripped over curbs.

Still, ER doctors who responded to a recent informal query from the organization reported two deaths, both in California. A San Francisco woman was killed by a pickup truck earlier this year when she stepped off a curb while texting, and a Bakersfield man was killed last year by a car while crossing the street and texting.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has no national estimate on how common texting-related injuries are. But since 2005, the agency has received at least seven reports of serious texting mishaps, including a 15-year-old girl who fell off her horse while texting, suffering head and back injuries, and a 13-year-old girl who suffered belly, leg and arm burns after texting her boyfriend while cooking noodles.

Other reports include a 39-year-old man who suffered a head injury after crashing his bicycle into a tree while texting and a 16-year-old boy who suffered a concussion because he was texting while walking and banged into a telephone pole.

Distractions as brief as 2 seconds can cause accidents or near misses while driving a car, according to a 2006 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. Dr. Mary Pat McKay, an ER doctor at Prince George Hospital in Cheverly, Md., who has worked with the NHTSA, said similar lapses may be responsible for text-message mishaps during other activities as well.

363 billion wireless messages sent a year
That’s worrisome in a country where 363 billion text messages were sent last year, according to CTIA, a wireless association, and when so many people are engaged in text-dependent multitasking. McKay says she’s been shocked to observe several cyclists riding hands-free, texting as they go.

“I’ve seen it at least three times and I only drive four miles to work,” she said. “The final bottom line is if you’re distracted from the task at hand, your risk rises.”

Dr. James Adams, chairman of emergency medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said he has treated minor injuries in several texters.

"Common sense isn't always common," Adams said.

Sometimes even among doctors.

"I have to admit that I started a text while I was driving and then I said, `This is so stupid,' so I stopped," Adams said.

It’s the lure of instant connection that’s driving the need to text during every activity, said Janet Armentor-Cota, an assistant professor of sociology at California State University at Bakersfield, who studies the sociology of technology.

“There’s a culture being fostered here about always being in contact, always being accessible,” she said. “There’s never a moment where you have to miss out.”

Trouble is, some texters forget that physical world has consequences that the virtual world does not, she added.

“In the real world, there’s the danger of falling off the horse,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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