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Talk on your cell, risk missing the unicycling clown

Walkers talking on cell phones are less likely than those listening to music to see a prop clown unicycling pass, new research finds.

Those who walk while talking on cell phones are less likely than those listening to their iPods to see this clown unicycling pass, and they even struggle walking in straight lines, new research finds. Western Washington University

Most research on cell phone distraction has revolved around driving, and has led to laws against using handheld phones when behind the wheel. But it turns out that walkers using cell phones are also distracted, more so than individuals walking alone, or in pairs, or even those listening to music. In fact, so much so that only 25 percent of them even noticed a clown unicycling past. (The clown was not a lovely coincidence but rather a study prop.)

Researchers at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Wash., set out to study inattentional blindness using the unicycling clown test, the results of which will be published in the December issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology.

It turns out that those walking alone, in pairs, or while listening to music noticed the unicycling clown more than 50 percent of the time, while those walking while talking into their cell phones noticed him only 25 percent of the time.

Cell phone walkers also had difficulties with the task of walking itself, and walked on average more slowly (at least they won't hurt the clown when they bowl him over), tended to weave, and rarely acknowledged nearby individuals (which may or may not be the result of distraction).

"If people experience so much difficulty performing the task of walking when on a cell phone, just think of what this means when put into the context of driving safety," says Ira E. Hyman Jr., head researcher of the study. "People should not drive while talking on a cell phone."

The researchers, who observed some 300 walkers plus one clown in Red Square on the Western Washington University campus in March and April of 2008, did not study those using hands-free devices.

When I called Hyman on Tuesday to ask why, he said a slew of previous studies show that it doesn't matter whether the devices are hands-free. "It's not the hands, it's the head," he said, sounding slightly embarrassed by his cute-ism. "That's the simplest way I can say it. It's really about where your head is."

In the interest of full disclosure, I own a unicycle (but not a clown suit). I also talk on my cell phone while walking (but not while unicycling). And while I was brainstorming how to end this report (while sitting), it hit me that this study brings new meaning to the importance of asking, "Are you sitting down?" when breaking big news.