From a rear vantage, there may be little difference between a drunkard walking home from the bar and a distracted texter making his or her way down the sidewalk.
According to a new study led by researchers at Texas A&M, people attempting to walk and text while cognitively distracted tend to slow down and swerve.
After a string of pedestrian deaths, city officials in New York waged a public awareness campaign warning of the dangers of texting and walking. They also upped their jaywalking ticket quota and promised to pull over more speeding cabs.
But little research has been done on how texting affects the act of walking.
To see what really happens when people text and walk, scientists had participants navigate a series of simple obstacle courses while either doing nothing but walking, texting and walking or texting and walking while being cognitively distracted by a math quiz.
Motion sensors offered researchers a 3-D analysis of the affects of each scenario on a participant's gait.
Distracted texting walkers were found slow down and lose their ability to maintain a straight line. But they weren't necessarily less competent navigators. The slow swerving walkers also increased the obstacle clearance and step frequency, suggesting they compensated for their diminished control by decreasing their speed and taking more frequent and careful steps to avoid collisions.
Researchers say their study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, may need to be replicated with a larger test group, as the initial crop of young participants were likely to have plenty of experience walking while using mobile devices.