Texting while walking around San Francisco? Watch for muggers 

At an intersection near the Balboa Park BART station Friday, a man who was text messaging was punched in the mouth and robbed of his cell phone.

There has been an uptick in such incident around Bay Area, particularly in denser urban areas, and residents say they have been assaulted and robbed in public while texting, e-mailing, tweeting or posting updates on Facebook.

While California and other states have passed laws banning the crash-inducing combo of text messaging and driving, how risky is texting and walking?

“It can be a huge danger,” San Francisco police Lt. Troy Dangerfield said. “You can get robbed, hit on the head, followed. People need to pay attention.”

In broad daylight in the Financial District last summer, a 43-year-old man was punched and robbed as he texted while walking on a busy sidewalk.

“They get lost in their own world,” Dangerfield said. “They feel that they have to reply to every text that comes in right now.”

And if being assaulted during a robbery is not bad enough, crooks prey on distracted cell phone users because stunned victims often will not be able to identify them in a police lineup.

Police in South San Francisco warn about awareness of one’s surroundings.

“I wouldn’t be blogging and texting because you are not paying attention to where you are going,” South City Sgt. Joni Lee said.

Thefts happen often on Muni — including buses, streetcars and platforms — or “any time there is idle time” and people can become engaged in their electronic devices, Dangerfield said.

“If we could get folks to stop using their personal electronics on the bus, we could put a big nick in these sorts of crimes,” Richmond Police Station Capt. Richard Corriea said Wednesday regarding thefts on the Geary Boulevard and California Street corridors.

The robberies are happening often enough that it is only a matter of time before they earn a subcategory in the California Penal Code — in the same way carjacking was created to distinguish it from the broader robbery charge, Dangerfield said.

“I guess I don’t think much about it, at least not while I’m doing it,” said Angela Greene, a 34-year-old legal assistant who was texting on a Market Street sidewalk Tuesday. “I still look both ways when crossing the street.”

So you can’t stop texting? There’s an app for that

Texting while walking not only attracts crooks, but increases the likelihood of an accident, police said. People have been known to fall into manholes when paying too much attention to their mobile devices.

Millions across the country have found humor in a recent YouTube video showing a woman texting in Pennsylvania who falls into a fountain at a mall.

“I’ve had people walk out in front of me in my personal car,” said Sgt. Rich Bullerjahn of the Palo Alto Police Department. “Some of those people’s reactions were to be angry at the driver for almost hitting them.”

But for text-messaging addicts who want to stay safe and connected in public spaces, there are apps for that.

One example is StartTalking by Massachusetts-based Adela Voice. Rather than texting on your phone, the app lets you talk to the phone and have what you say sent as a text.

Last year, the company put out its application around the same time the state of Massachusetts made the maximum fine $500 for texting while driving.

San Francisco-based Jawbone, which makes Bluetooth earpieces, also created an app that incorporates voice-to-text technology. Jawbone's earpiece allows users to text and tweet using their voice, “so you’re not looking down at your cell phone screen and can keep your eyes focused on what’s ahead,” said Travis Bogard, Jawbone’s vice president of product management and strategy.

“Jawbone also has a new iPhone application, Jawbone THOUGHTS, that combines the speed of texting with the richness of voice, allowing you to send and receive quick audio messages to friends and groups without having to type or read messages,” Bogard said.

maldax@sfexaminer.com

Sidewalk hazards

With the popularity of mobile devices skyrocketing, police are seeing an increase in the number of people who are robbed while they are texting in public.

January
- A man who was texting was punched in the face and robbed of his cell phone near the Balboa Park BART station. The violent robbery was reported around midnight in the area of Geneva and San Jose avenues.

December
- A 34-year-old woman was robbed while texting in the Mission district, police said. The woman was walking in the 3200 block of 24th Street around 7:30 p.m. when a teenager allegedly ran toward her and knocked the phone out of her hand, according to cops. The boy scooped up the phone and ran, police said. The woman chased after him and was soon joined in her pursuit by police officers, who made an arrest, according to cops.

August
- During a bustling weekday in the Financial District, a man was punched and robbed of his phone while texting on the sidewalk. The 43-year-old was walking on Montgomery Street before the surprise attack at 7 p.m. The culprit fled and the man could not offer a description of the robber.

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