Don’t Be a Smartphone Zombie!

By Jeremy Del Nero on 8 October 2019
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A new term is creeping into the urban vernacular.  Smartphone zombies – pedestrians who are engaged far more with their smartphones than with their surroundings – are cropping up everywhere.

While the term was not yet in use, the phenomenon was noted by FBT Editorial Director Jonathan Spira in his book “Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous to Your Organization,” referring to “distracted walking” as one of multiple issues caused by Information Overload, in which he notes that the number of pedestrians admitted to emergency rooms with concussions caused by collision with objects whilst using a smartphone had doubled each year for the previous five years.

Pedestrians engaged in texting, chatting, amorous online encounters, reading newspapers or magazines, or even overly absorbed by listening to music, walk into traffic, bump into others on the sidewalks and crosswalks, and even walk head on into lamp posts.  Research by NTT Docomo found that the field of vision enjoyed by a smartphone user staring at his device is a mere 5% of what someone would normally experience.

A report by the Tokyo Fire Department earlier in the decade said that 122 people had to be rushed to hospital after accidents caused by pedestrians using cellphones.  In the United Kingdom a 2019 study found that the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by bicyclists is soaring, and mobile phones are being blamed.

But cities are taking steps to deal with the zombies.

Honolulu became the first major city in the United States to protect people from their smartphones in 2017 when it banned distracted walking.  Pedestrians can be fined $35 for crossing a street while focusing on a mobile device. The law covers all mobile phones, video game systems, pagers, and laptops. The so-called “distracted pedestrian” law was needed because so many pedestrians in the city, in particular senior citizens, are struck by vehicles in crosswalks, saidHonolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a bill-signing ceremony for the new law.

New York City released a report earlier in the month that essentially said that “distracted pedestrians” is not a thing, so to speak.  “Cell phone use by pedestrians does not appear to be disproportionately contributing to fatal pedestrian crashes,” the report said.

Meanwhile, Brendan Kearney, communications director at WalkBoston, a pedestrian safety group that is working across the state to make cities safer and more convenient for walking, said that, in looking at the large number of fatal pedestrian crashes that have occurred in Boston alone, “it is important that someone texting on his phone on the street not lose his life over an error because a driver was also distracted at that point in time.”

In several German cities including Augsburg and Cologne, ground-level traffic lights have been embedded into the pavement to make them more visible to distracted pedestrians.  In Seoul, which has seen over a thousand road accidents caused by smartphone use in one year alone, officials have placed warning signs on the pavement at dangerous intersections.

Finally, perhaps recognizing the futility of trying to change the behavior of smartphone zombies, the city of Chongqing in China has built a dedicated smartphone sidewalk which separates smartphone users from those who can do without.

Jonathan Spira and Anna Breuer contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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