By Katy Steinmetz
January 23, 2014

The true-life stories sound like jokes with the same punch line: Why did the man almost walk into a bear? Why did the woman tumble into a fountain? Why did the tourist fall off a pier?

Because the man, the woman and the tourist were all so engrossed in their cell phones that they had ceased paying attention to their surroundings. With people more tethered than ever to smartphones, “distracted walking” is becoming enough of a problem that American cities are taking steps to curb it. “People are out there, and they’re just not paying attention, no matter what we say,” says Roberta Altstadt of the transit agency TriMet in Portland, Ore. Buses there will soon be flashing lights or issuing an audio warning–“Bus is turning!”–as officials study the most effective way to wake up pedestrians. Rexburg, Idaho, now levies a $50 fine for texting while in a crosswalk. And San Francisco is launching a “Be Nice, Look Twice” safety campaign, asking walkers and other travelers to be more aware.

State lawmakers have been loath to ban distracted walking like distracted driving, but with pedestrian deaths on the rise nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has set aside $2 million that cities can apply for to combat the scourge. Texting is “like a drug,” says Harvey Munford, a Nevada state lawmaker whose distracted-walking measure failed last year. “People are addicted.”


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This appears in the February 03, 2014 issue of TIME.

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