By Rick Montgomery

Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Because Jennifer Moretina is an urgent care physician, she notices: Everywhere, distracted walking.

“You don’t even realize the extent to which people do this unless you’re looking for it,” said Moretina.

Of course, to notice requires that we take our eyes off our phones.

On a recent Saturday on the way to enjoy ice cream in Kansas City’s Zona Rosa district, Moretina simply observed. Perhaps the distracted walking she saw this day was partly a function of the popularity of the Pokémon Go craze.

But it couldn’t all be, thought Moretina, who is medical director of Liberty Hospital Urgent Care. When you consider the number of low-hanging tree limbs, swinging doors and step-down curbs out there, she and other area health practitioners suspect our rapt attention to devices has been causing mishaps for some time.

The kids at Zona Rosa who marched into Moretina, their faces glowing off their smartphone screens, were but a mild concern. “Sorry,” they’d say, and on they would go.

But the 30-something pedestrian who sprawled flat onto a street because she didn’t see the curb? “She was lucky no cars were coming,” Moretina said.

“This woman got up and started walking with her cellphone out again, just as distracted as before she fell.”

This is how it usually goes. Most distracted walkers don’t land in the hospital, unlike so many distracted drivers. And even if they do get their sprained ankles wrapped by Moretina in urgent care, they’re often too embarrassed to say how they were injured.

Although the number of casualties is elusive, the hazard has given rise to a new word: “petextrian,” or someone who texts while walking.

In a half-dozen U.S. states, lawmakers have proposed bills that would levy fines against pedestrians or bicyclists using their mobile devices while crossing streets, oblivious to the traffic signals. None of the bills has yet passed.

Growing injuries

It was just last year that the National Safety Council for the first time included data on distracted walking in its annual Injury Facts report. The council estimated that more than 11,100 injuries occurred between 2000 and 2011.

Slightly more than half of the walking injuries related to cellphone use happened at home, and eight of every 10 were due to a fall, the report concluded.

Far more alarming is research linking a rise in pedestrian fatalities to Americans’ increased reliance on cellphones. One such study by the Governors Highway Safety Association noted that pedestrian deaths around the country have jumped 15 percent since 2009, reversing steady declines between the mid-1970s and early 2000s. (The association couldn’t say for sure how much of the increase in pedestrian deaths might be phone-related.)

First responders with Johnson County Med-Act haven’t any statistics that would point to a trend. “A lot of times these would be injuries not severe enough to call 911,” said Mark Terry, Med-Act’s deputy chief of operations.

“Now anecdotally, does it happen? Have I noticed people (looking down at their phones) instead of paying attention to their surroundings?” asked Terry. “Yes, and that’s a problem.”

Pokémon problems

Accounts of accidents have surfaced elsewhere with the recent burst of interest in Pokémon Go, where players use their smartphones’ GPS capabilities to hunt virtual creatures:

• Near San Diego, two men reportedly playing the game suffered moderate injuries when they tumbled down a seaside cliff, according to USA Today.

• The Associated Press reported on players sustaining cuts, wrecking their skateboards, nursing bruises after tripping over doorstops and twisting their ankles wandering at night.

• A gamer on the Pokémon Go Reddit site posted: “Not even 30 minutes after the release (July 6), I slipped and fell down a ditch. Fractured the fifth metatarsal bone in my foot. I told all the doctors I was walking my dog, lol.”

In other instances, the game may be encouraging better health, some contend.

Steve Biegun, a digital design manager who organizes the KC Virtual Reality Meetup Group, said he knows a player whose only medical complaint related to Pokémon Go is having sore legs — the contest has compelled the person to go out walking.

Sore legs are “a good problem to have rather than sitting on the couch all day,” said Biegun. “It’s like texting or anything else: Moderation is important. Be smart. Be aware. Don’t be reckless.”

Rules that Jessica Salazar forgot for one foolish moment long before Pokémon Go’s release.

She works in media relations for Overland Park Regional Medical Center, part of the HCA Midwest Health group. When the Star phoned her to ask if she knew patients who fell victim to distracted walking, Salazar replied: “Yes. It happened to me.”

Salazar said she was checking emails as she stepped toward the entrance of Menorah Medical Center for a meeting earlier this year. She tripped on a curb and, next thing she knew, she was on hands and knees.

“I just bit it completely,” she said. “I was trying to do too many things at once.”

She didn’t feel just silly; she felt pain.

Salazar still has scrapes on a leg. And lingering numbness in a hand requires she wear a wrist brace.

“It’s the way we live our lives,” said Jared White, medical director at Overland Park Regional’s ER of Shawnee, Kansas. “Most of these injuries you’ll see in the ankles, sprains, some back injuries — just for people taking that one wrong step. It doesn’t take much force.”

The good news? You don’t need Google to tell you how to be safe.

“I’d just say put that phone down,” said physician Moretina, “and keep your head up.”