Dutch town pro­tects ‘smart­phone zom­bies’ with light strips

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - AMY B WANG

It’s not a dif­fi­cult sce­nario to imag­ine: a group of pedes­tri­ans stand on a street cor­ner, wait­ing for the cross­walk light to turn green.

At least a few, if not all, are star­ing down at their smart­phones. For what­ever rea­son — whether scrolling through In­sta­gram or en­grossed in a game of Cook­ing Fever — they’re not fully at­tuned to the traf­fic light ahead. A par­tic­u­larly obliv­i­ous walker might even step into on­com­ing traf­fic.

“Smart­phone zom­bies,” as tech web­site The Verge de­scribed them, have be­come a real con­cern — and one Dutch mu­nic­i­pal­ity wants to stem the prob­lem be­fore it gets worse. Of­fi­cials in Bode­graven-Reeuwijk, about 40 kilo­me­tres south of Am­s­ter­dam in the western Nether­lands, are pi­lot­ing a pro­gram that they think may help pro­tect such dis­tracted pedes­tri­ans.

At a hand­ful of in­ter­sec­tions around town, il­lu­mi­nated LED strips of light (called “+Lichtlijn,” or light lines) have been in­stalled into the pave­ment.

The “light lines” can change colour and are synced with their cor­re­spond­ing traf­fic lights; as soon as the nor­mal cross­ing light turns red or green, so, too, does the one in the ground.

The idea, of­fi­cials said, is that peo­ple on their phones are go­ing to be star­ing to­ward their feet any­way. Why not make it more likely that they will still be able to see the traf­fic light in their im­me­di­ate pe­riph­eral vi­sion?

“The lure of so­cial me­dia, games, What­sApp and music is great, and it comes at the ex­pense of pay­ing at­ten­tion to traf­fic,” town al­der­man Kees Oskam said in a state­ment. “As a gov­ern­ment, we prob­a­bly can’t re­verse this trend, but we can an­tic­i­pate prob­lems.”

The pro­ject has at­tracted crit­i­cism from Veilig Ver­keer Ned­er­land, a group that ad­vo­cates for road safety in the Nether­lands.

“What you are do­ing is re­ward­ing bad be­hav­iour,” a spokesper­son for the group told DutchNews.nl about the light lines.

Nev­er­the­less, schools in Bode­graven-Reeuwijk that are near the test light lines are re­port­edly ex­cited about the pilot pro­gram, hop­ing it will in­crease safety.

HIG Traf­fic Sys­tems, which de­vel­oped the light lines, hopes other cities in the Nether­lands will be in­ter­ested in the sys­tem as well, ac­cord­ing to Om­roep West.

In the United States, “dis­tracted walk­ing” has be­com­ing an in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous prob­lem. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, 5,376 pedes­tri­ans were killed in the United States in 2015, up from 4,884 the year be­fore. Nearly three-quar­ters of those deaths take place at “non-in­ter­sec­tions,” while 19 per cent oc­cur at places where pedes­tri­ans are meant to be, in­clud­ing cross­walks and side­walks.

In 2015, for the first time, the U.S. Na­tional Safety Coun­cil in­cluded in an an­nual re­port statis­tics about dis­tracted-walk­ing in­ci­dents in­volv­ing cell­phones. The group found that dis­tracted walk­ing was re­spon­si­ble for more than 11,100 in­juries be­tween 2000 and 2011.

The coun­cil’s list of pedes­trian safety tips in­cludes age-old ad­vice such as “Look left, right and left again be­fore cross­ing the street” but also now warns never to use a cell­phone or other elec­tronic de­vice while walk­ing.

“Walk­ing is one of the best things we can do to stay healthy, but only if we put safety first,” the group notes on its web­site.

Last year, a New Jersey law­maker in­tro­duced a bill that would have banned walk­ing and tex­ting at the same time, as well as pedes­tri­ans from us­ing phones, iPads or other com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vices that were not hands-free. Vi­o­la­tors could have been fined $50, 15 days in prison or both.

“Dis­tracted pedes­tri­ans, like dis­tracted driv­ers, present a po­ten­tial dan­ger to them­selves and driv­ers on the road,” the bill’s spon­sor, state leg­is­la­tor Pamela Lampitt said at the time. “An in­di­vid­ual cross­ing the road dis­tracted by their smart­phone presents just as much dan­ger to mo­torists as some­one jay­walk­ing and should be held, at min­i­mum, to the same penalty.”

TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO

The Na­tional Safety Coun­cil in the U.S. says more than 11,000 peo­ple were in­jured in 2015 in dis­tracted walk­ing in­ci­dents in­volv­ing smart­phones.

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