The dreaded pedestrian texter may actually be as safety-conscious as the rest of us, a new study from PLOS-One suggests.

The study authors, after having 30 test subjects walk through an obstacle course of their own design, concluded that people who text or are otherwise distracted by a task while walking aren’t necessarily any more likely to get tripped up -- likely because they become much slower and more cautious walkers.

Despite the fact that most anyone with a working smartphone has committed the faux pas of walking while texting, the authors noted that there’s been surprisingly little research looking into how cell phone browsing influences our walking. The common assumption, even held by the authors prior to the study, is that texting makes the walker more accident-prone, similar to how cell phone use can worsen someone’s driving ability. But as most any 15-year-old who is ineligible for a learner’s permit (13 in Alaska) knows, there’s a world of difference between walking and driving.

The authors decided to create a short but obstacle-filled walking path, one intended to simulate the variety of impediments on your typical run to the store. These included a jumpable barrier, dummy pedestrians to walk around, and even a tiny, uneven flight of stairs. They then recruited 30 participants, ages 18 to 50, to pace around the Z-shaped path in one of three different ways: normally, while answering a series of texted questions on their own cell phone, or while completing a math quiz on an IPhone (the order in which each participant had to complete these tasks was randomized).

At the same time, using a “3D optical motion analysis system,” they captured the speed and length of each footstep the subjects took, how often they strayed from a straight walking path, as well as how long it took for them to complete the course.

“Participants took significantly longer to complete the course while texting and during cognitive distraction (COG) vs. normal walking,” the authors concluded. How long? Well only about 4 seconds longer than when normally walking, which took about 19 seconds on average. The Walking-Distracted were also more likely to veer off the straight path while taking bigger steps to walk over an obstacle. But despite the difference in walking styles, they weren’t any more likely to actually bump into objects or other people while texting or distracted.       

“While one might infer that these alterations in gait might increase the risk for tripping, our surrogate analysis (i.e., barrier contacts) showed no significant differences between any treatment conditions,” the authors wrote. “Our results, in conjunction with others, suggest that those who walk and text adopt a ‘protective’ gait pattern alteration in order to minimize the risk of potential accidents.”

As with any study, there are strengths and weaknesses to the authors’ design. Though previous experiments on texting while walking concluded that texters aren’t any slower than the average normal walker, these studies only looked at how their subjects walked on a straight, easily negotiable, path. On the other hand, it seems apparent that the subjects of this current study knew they were being watched as they walked along the course, which might account for some of their cautiousness while texting. Would a busy New Yorker checking the score of the Mets game be as perceptive as the walkers seen here? It’s difficult to say for sure.

One possibility for the texting while walking prowess is simple experience, as many cell phone users have become accustomed to multi-tasking. However, that might also mean texting while walking is a young person’s game, which the authors suggest should be an area of future research, noting that those older “may be at a greater risk of tripping with such walking deviations.”

Still, it does seem like you can chalk this study up as a win for the millennial crowd. Now if only we could prove that an all-pizza diet fights cancer.

Source: Licence S, Smith R, McGuigan M, et al. Gait Pattern Alterations during Walking, Texting and Walking and Texting during Cognitively Distractive Tasks while Negotiating Common Pedestrian Obstacles. PLOS-One. 2015.