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Caution: Texting on foot a hazard

Distracted pedestrians are racking up all kinds of injuries. The message? Pay attention or pay the price.

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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Jocelyn Nagy was at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and West Broadway indulging in a favorite pastime, walking while texting, when she stepped in front of an oncoming car, which promptly ran over her foot. Nagy, 22, checked to see if she could still walk (incredibly, she could), and then quickly got back to the really important business. “I just got hit by a car!’’ she texted friends.

Massachusetts banned texting while driving last September, but as emergency room doctors — and annoyed or amused onlookers know — texting while on foot remains quite legal. Now that walking season is upon us, look out. Distracted pedestrians are colliding with cars and telephone poles, tumbling down stairs and off curbs, and slamming into other pedestrians, some of whom are also texting, of course.

OMG! Just hit by jerk!

Ohio State University researchers reported that pedestrian texting accidents led to more than 1,000 emergency room visits nationwide in 2008. In retrospect, that was a relatively simple time, when Americans sent a mere 1 trillion texts, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, based in Washington, D.C. Last year, the number of texts hit 2.1 trillion, and Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State, is updating his research. He expects that the new numbers, out later this month or in June, will show an increase in texting-related injuries. “I’m not sure people realize they are putting themselves at risk,’’ he said.

But what’s a sprained ankle compared with the urgency of reaching out, even if it’s only to say “LOL,’’ or “WRUD’’ (“What are you doing?’’).

Another study, done this year, found that almost 23 percent of respondents had tripped or fallen while texting. Well, at least that’s how many admitted it to GOGII, the Los Angeles County-based maker of textPlus, a social messaging app. For many, it’s the injury that dare not speak its name.

“I never mentioned it again,’’ Charlie Feinberg, 16, a sophomore at the Belmont Hill School, said of his run-in with a pole near Fenway Park as he headed to a Red Sox game with a friend. Much to Feinberg’s horror, a guy across the street yelled: “He’s the stupid one.’’ The texting accident left Feinberg with a bruised cheek, but he pretended it didn’t hurt. “I shook it off,’’ he said.

Krista Steinkrauss, 23, of Brighton, also tried to act blasé, an approach made harder by the cast she had to wear for eight weeks after she tripped near Park Street station and fractured a bone in her hand. Texting friends for advice on the way to a job interview, Steinkrauss caught her heel in the brick sidewalk and down she went.

“People thought I was kind of an idiot,’’ she said. “But part of me was like: I had it coming.’’

Cathy Cruz Marrero — or Fountain Lady, as she is better known, after a video of her tumble into a fountain in a Pennsylvania mall went viral on YouTube — was so embarrassed by her self-inflicted texting mishap in January that she hired a lawyer with thoughts of suing the mall.

While the majority of pedestrian texting injuries bruise the ego more than anything else, texting while walking can lead to serious injury, or death. In 2008, a distracted texting Florida teen died after being hit by a car. In 2009, a New York girl fell into an open manhole while texting and exposed herself to raw sewage.

The risk has been recognized by a number of organizations, including the American College of Emergency Physicians, the US Congress Office of Compliance, and the Governors Highway Safety Association. In January, the group speculated that the lack of progress on reducing pedestrian deaths may be in part due to mobile phones. “The combination of a distracted pedestrian and a distracted driver does not end well for the pedestrian,’’ Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the governors’ group, wrote in an e-mail.

With texters unable to pull themselves away and look up while walking, the market is rushing in. Smartphone apps such as Type n Walk and iType2Go allow texters to see what’s in front of them as they stride along typing, the phone’s camera allowing them to filter reality through their phone’s screen. In some cities in Spain and Finland, officials have embedded traffic lights in crosswalks, the better to be seen by the downward-looking pedestrians.

In the United States, legislators in several states have tried, unsuccessfully so far, to ban texting while walking. A New York state senator is still trying. In January he refiled a bill that would ban pedestrians from using mobile devices in crosswalks in cities with populations of 1 million or more. Meanwhile, pedestrians in a much smaller city, Rexburg, Idaho — population approximately 28,000 — have already lost the right to cross the street while texting. The first offense costs a scofflaw $50, and after that it goes up $150.

Perhaps that will get the texters’ attention — or maybe not. In a study of “inattention blindness,’’ researchers at Western Washington University found that only 25 percent of people talking on a cellphone noticed a researcher cycling by — even though he was dressed as a clown, with a purple suit and a red nose, and riding a unicycle.

Ryan A. Stanton, an emergency physician at Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, Ky., and a spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians, is well positioned to see the results of texting fever.

“It’s too bad for people who get hurt,’’ Stanton said, “but some of the stuff is kind of comical. We had someone drop-kick a fire hydrant.’’ Texting, he advised, “is best done in a stationary position.’’

Medical personnel have their concerns, and Lauren Romano, 28, a recruiter from Boston, has hers. An avid texter, she falls monthly, most recently on a Saturday evening last month as she was leaving a supermarket. In her eagerness to respond to a text about that evening’s plans, she didn’t see a small flight of stairs.

Her groceries went flying, and her tomato sauce — along with her beloved phone — rolled out into the parking lot. As she collected herself, her thoughts were on one thing: “I hope my phone doesn’t get run over.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com.

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