Can your smartphone stop you from getting hit by a car?

Long gone are the days when we would look both ways before crossing the street. The only direction most of us look is down, ceaselessly staring into the infinite depths of our screens. Distracted walking might not seem as dangerous as distracted driving, but it could be a contributing factor in the surge of pedestrian deaths and injuries seen over the last four years, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

But could the very technology that distracts us also alert us to danger? In a study published last week in the journal Human Factors, a team of computer scientists tried to determine if sending warning signs to a distracted person’s phone would help them safely cross a busy roadway.

“Pedestrians stand at the edge of the road, one second from death, a lot of time,” says Joseph Kearney, study co-author and professor of computer science at the University of Iowa. “Cars are whizzing by, and one single, false step could be dangerous.”

Don’t worry: researchers didn’t push pedestrians into a stream of oncoming traffic to test their theory. Kearney works at the Hank Virtual Environments Lab, which utilizes what’s called “virtual environment technology” to study how folks cross busy streets. Wearing virtual reality glasses and head mounted displays, preoccupied participants had to navigate a 3D neighborhood while texting. If they were about to make a dangerous road crossing, a loud warning signal sounded from their phone.

Some of the results were as expected—pedestrians heeded warnings and ultimately made safer crossings. But what Kearney didn’t anticipate was the participants’ reactions to the warning signals once they had already started crossing the road.

“The kicker was, once they made the overt motion to move, they almost never stopped and returned to the curb, even when they got a warning,” he says. “We also found they looked at the road much less when they have this alerting system. The concern is what we call ‘outsourcing our cognition’—you allow the phone to make the decision for you.”

It seems counter-intuitive to keep walking if there’s a speeding car coming at you, and in the study, it was. More than a third of the 300 test crossings resulted in a collision, which Kearney says was a much higher rate than other studies conducted in the simulator. In the real world, that translates to a lot of pedestrian pancakes. And even though participants knew they weren’t in any actual danger, Kearney says the collisions were still a shock, with many of them trying to leap out of the way of virtual vehicles.

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