Answer the Clue Phone

According to Greg Dawson, the real “walking dead” are all around us, glued to their cell phones.

David Vallejo

You don’t have to watch the hit TV show to see “The Walking Dead.’’ Just go to the mall. They’re everywhere.

Better dressed and coiffed than the scabby ghouls on TV, the ambulatory deceased at the mall have two things in common: 1) a cell phone, and 2) total obliviousness to everyone around them. They walk as if there is no one else in the mall. I call it the cell phone saunter.

Head down staring at the screen, or looking straight ahead at nothing with the phone to their ear, they meander in a hermetic bubble, weaving from side to side, sometimes coming to a halt in the middle of the concourse like a befuddled mule. You will grow old waiting for them to acknowledge your existence and move out of the way.

I’ll bet they drive the same way, seeing no reason to stop their incessant blather—or even worse, texting—just because they’re steering two tons of steel down the road. But while distracted drivers have been an issue for some time, distracted walkers only recently appeared on the radar screens of anyone besides cranks like me. They are now officially “a thing.”

Last year the Florida Department of Transportation began a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of talking or texting on a cell phone while walking, especially on busy urban streets rife with distracted motorists. It was the byproduct
of another initiative, says Trenda McPherson, manager of bicycle and pedestrian safety for the FDOT.

“We were out doing a road safety survey, gathering data for improvements to crosswalks,” she says. “We noticed people on cell phones crossing against the signal, not paying attention to where they were going. That’s when we initially started doing anything about it.”

The campaign slogan is “Stop the Talk. Just Walk.” Starting in South Florida and now across much of the state including Central Florida, the DOT has distributed tip cards at malls, supermarkets, businesses, and community events. It offers screen cleaners that stick to cell phones and are attached to cards warning people not to be on their phones while walking. Else they could get run over by a bus.

OK, so that’s not actually on the tip card but that’s the message. It’s not Stephen J. Hawking stuff, just an appeal to your common sense and survival instinct. Think Cher in Moonstruck slapping Nicolas Cage: “Snap out of it!”

I spent a couple of hours downtown at lunchtime on a weekday watching dozens of distracted walkers and did not see anyone get hit by a bus because they were searching Yelp! for an eatery. But it’s only a matter of time.

Because Florida doesn’t collect the data, “There is no way of linking distracted walking to those who show up in ERs,” says McPherson, but “we can see it is happening” and in states that do keep track “there’s pretty good evidence that’s the case.”

 Meanwhile, back to my pet peeve: the walking dead at the mall where the population seems to be exploding. With no natural enemies like buses and curbs, they can operate with impunity. It’s their world—we’re just shopping in it. 

 How bad is it? So bad that some of the walking dead have a designated walker, like the twentysomething woman who put a hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder and never looked up from her phone as he led her past Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, the Sunglass Hut, Electronics City, Cold Stone Creamery, GameStop, Payless shoes and CVS to the entrance of JCPenney.

Moments before latching onto her seeing-eye boyfriend, the woman looked up just in time to dodge an ornamental pillar in the midway. If I weren’t such a nice person, I would have been rooting for her to slam into it as a wake-up call from all of us defensive walkers.

“Hello! We are not stucco pillars! We are actual people trying to get by. Please move!”

McPherson says she first became aware of the cell phone zombies in parking lots—“distracted pedestrians walking very close to a car backing out, assuming the driver sees them.”

Tell me about it. After researching this column, I was about to pull out of my parking space at the mall—straight ahead not backing out—when a millennial in a stocking cap and goatee sauntered left to right across my field of vision.

Thanks only to my vigilance and pity for the fool did he get out alive or without serious injury. “You’re welcome!” I would have shouted—if he had bothered to look up. 

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