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Gadgets distract pedestrians too, causing mishaps

PALO ALTO, Calif. —Todd Atwood says he doesn't worry too much about accidents when walking down the street using his iPhone to make calls, send text messages or check his e-mail.

But he's seen the consequences of paying more attention to the gadget than what's ahead.

"I saw someone walk right into a sign," recalled the 32-year-old Silicon Valley resident. "She didn't hurt herself but she was startled. She dropped her phone, then her friends starting laughing at her. It was funny but I guess it could've been more serious."

Although using a cell phone while driving has triggered the most alarm bells and prompted laws in several states, experts say, pedestrians are also suffering the consequences of mobile distraction — tripping on curbs, walking into traffic, even stepping into manholes as they chat or type while walking.

To help these sidewalk stumblers step out more safely, technology companies are now stepping in, creating applications that do things like making a smartphone screen transparent to transforming speech into text.

Whether the technologies will prevent injuries and embarrassment remains to be seen, they are being welcomed as a move in the right direction.

"I don't think we're going to eliminate people from walking into things outright and of course we want people to be responsible, but what we're trying to do is eliminate the friction point... and give the user back a little mental bandwidth," said Travis Bogard, the executive director for product management and strategy at San Francisco-based Aliph, which makes Bluetooth earpieces.

Most lawmakers and experts agree that Big Brothering the sidewalks is impractical. They instead encourage public outreach and see promise in the technological innovations.

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