Lost in an electronic haze

That young man who just walked into a telephone pole and the woman who strolled down a shopping mall and straight into a fountain, are neither drunk nor funny.

They are distracted walkers, and it’s a growing problem.

We all know about the dangers of talking on cellphones or texting while driving. Our state has passed laws outlawing the latter and regulating the former to hands-free conversations only.

But there are no such laws to that could have protected the 116 pedestrians wearing headphones who were killed or seriously injured over the last six years.

The Associated Press is reporting a four-fold increase over seven years in the number of distracted walkers treated in hospital emergency rooms, and a noticeable spike in pedestrians killed in traffic accidents.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, using information from 100 emergency rooms, says more than 1,152 people were treated after being injured while walking and using some type of electronic device.

While traffic deaths declined in 2010 compared with the previous year, pedestrian deaths increased by 4.2 percent and pedestrian injuries were up 19 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

It turns out that the old adage about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, bears more than a little truth in the 21st century age of electronic gadgetry.

Psychologists agree that humans can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. We can multitask, but our attention is really shifting back and forth rapidly, causing performance in each task to decline and slow down.

Delaware, Pennsylvania and Utah are trying public education campaigns to make mentally adrift ambulators aware that they’ve gone astray. No doubt, with little success.

State legislatures in New York, Arkansas and Illinois tried to enact distracted walking laws, which all hit brick walls of another kind. There is no such legislation afoot in Washington.

We can chuckle about this new-age problem, as we did when a traffic helicopter tracking a black bear in Los Angeles captured on video a man walking along, sending a text to his boss, unaware that he had come within a few feet of the animal. Needless to say, he retreated quickly rather than play dead.

But when someone you know – and they are most likely to be under 30 – gets injured because they were distracted, it will cease being a funny quirk of life in the electronic age.