New Ben-Gurion University research shows that a child pedestrian’s ability to safely cross the road is hindered more during a cell phone conversation than an adult’s.

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Teaching a child road safety is one of the most important lessons a parent can hand down to their child. “Look left, right and then left again,” is the mantra drilled into children from a young age. But is it time for us to shake up road safety education? Should road safety lessons take into account the added dangers of modern technology?

Children have always had distractions when crossing the road, everything from a soccer ball that rolled into oncoming traffic to a group of friends waiting, but now there is an added danger – cellphones.

Research published by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) shows that a child pedestrian’s ability to safely cross the road is hindered more during a cell phone conversation than an adult’s.

Participants entered a virtual city environment at the BGU Virtual Environment Simulation Laboratory, one of the world’s most sophisticated traffic research facilities. They received a phone call while having to cross the road projected on an 180-degree spherical screen surrounding them.

“The results showed that while all age groups’ crossing behaviors were affected by cellphone conversations, children were more susceptible to distraction,” says Prof. Oron-Gilad, one of the authors of the study. “When busy with more cognitively demanding conversation types, participants were slower to react to a crossing opportunity, chose smaller crossing gaps and allocated less visual attention to the peripheral regions of the scene.”

The ability to make better crossing decisions improved with age. The most prominent improvement was shown in the “safety gap;” each age group maintained a longer gap than the younger one preceding it. “It is important to take these findings into account when aiming to train young pedestrians for road safety and increase public awareness,” Prof. Oron-Gilad says.

Is it enough to tell children not to use their cellphone when crossing the road? If you can guarantee your child’s ability to think clearly and use delayed gratification skills, then yes. Cellphones, however, are enticing, and the bright screen offering endless stimulation can be hard to refuse.

Children need help refining tactics for dealing with the constant onslaught of stimulation that the cellphone provides. Teaching children how to politely end a phone conversation, how to resist answering a text message or call when walking on the sidewalk and how to place the phone in silent mode to be more aware in public places are lessons that parents should design according to the individual child’s needs.

While we all could benefit from learning when to ignore our phones, for our children, the lesson might be a matter of life and death.