Students distracted by technology a local, national concern as study details safety risks

As she traversed the crosswalk outside East High School on Friday afternoon, Jesslyn Combs was plugged in.

As she walked, with the traffic light and with a swarm of students around her heading into the Labor Day weekend, the 16-year-old had her earbuds in, connected to a song on her cell phone.

A national study has found that one in five high schoolers cross the street while distracted by technology devices.

Jesslyn said she takes precautions to stay alert. “What I do is I keep my music low. I glance at my phone, don’t stay there.” Her father, Richard Combs, said he has reminded his daughter, for safety’s sake, not to get too distracted by her cell phone. Because you never know what might happen.

If Jesslyn and the other students didn’t take it upon themselves to stay alert as they walked across the street outside their high school, they could have been at some risk Friday – from drivers not paying full attention to what was on the pavement in front of them or from motorists driving in ways that would draw a ticket. That’s based on what an Eagle reporter saw while standing on the northwest corner of Douglas and Grove for about 30 minutes Friday afternoon just before the students got out.

At times, every other driver cruising or hurtling through that intersection and the crosswalk had their eyes fixed on cell phones visible to the reporter. Others who weren’t focused on cell phones were driving dangerously. One ran a red light. Another did a U-turn – in the intersection. A helmeted rider on a neon lime-green motorcycle started to flip over as he lurched to a sudden stop. The situation was complicated because the traffic flow on Douglas got squeezed into a narrower passage by school buses parked along the south curb and a work truck parked across the street from the buses, completely blocking the outside, westbound lane of Douglas.

Students walking across streets have enough distractions of their own: National research shows that “1 in 5 five high school students cross the street while distracted” by technology devices, and that 39 percent of the distracted teens are texting, according to a news release this past week by Via Christi Health. The findings, from Safe Kids Worldwide, also show that “one in eight middle school students crosses the street while texting, wearing headphones, or otherwise distracted by technology,” the release said.

The report, by Safe Kids Worldwide, was prompted by a finding that injuries to 16- to 19-year-old pedestrians rose 25 percent over five years. In 2010, 501 teen pedestrians ages 19 and under died.

The national study involved observing 34,000 middle and high school students crossing a street in a school zone. The purpose was to see if teens are distracted and what devices are causing the distraction. In Wichita, observations were made at two middle schools, in the morning and afternoon, in the fall of 2012 and spring of 2013, said Ronda Lusk, coordinator for Safe Kids Wichita Area Coalition, whose goal is to prevent unintentional injuries to children. Lusk said she couldn’t identify the schools. The coalition is led by Via Christi Health.

“Distraction is a big problem, both while driving and walking,” Lusk said in the release. “Parents, talk to your kids to make sure they are paying full attention when crossing the street. And we adults need to follow our own advice. If we put our devices down, our kids are more likely to do the same.”

The need for teens to stay alert while walking is especially important in an era when everyone is encouraged to be active and to walk more, Lusk said.

Terri Moses, the Wichita school district’s executive director of safety services, said, “My opinion is that the entire world needs to be more aware of their personal safety ... not just in school zones but everywhere we go. We need to be aware of what’s going on around us.”

Moses, a former Wichita deputy police chief, said when people get engrossed in the sounds and messages on their phones, “you’re tuning yourself out of the world around you.”

Just as people need to drive defensively and wear seat belts, they need to stay alert and safe while outside of a car, she said.

In the national study, nearly half of the 2,400 students interviewed, as part of discussion groups, said they use a cell phone when walking to school, the release said.

Forty percent of the students said they listen to music on the walk.

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