With smartphones now embedded in global culture, recognizing their potential for distraction and resulting injury is an ongoing public health concern.
Looking down with our eyes on our phones while walking is not optimal by any means. Our peripheral vision is one failsafe that helps alert us to avoid collisions or prevent falls. To illustrate the potential for danger, a 2012 study noted that persons who texted while walking were 60% more likely to veer off their path compared to those who did not text.
In Tel Aviv, according to the AP, ongoing concern for injuries from distracted walking associated with smartphones has prompted the government to launch a pilot program to improve safety.
Specialized LED lights embedded in the pavement–“zombie traffic lights”– were installed in a single crosswalk in central Tel Aviv to alert distracted pedestrians looking down at their smartphones and tell them when it’s safe to walk or time to stop. The strip lights along with short poles, embedded at each end in the crosswalk, turn red when pedestrians should stop and turn green signifying its safe to walk.
The AP reports that Tomer Dror, head of traffic management in Tel Aviv-Yafo, believes that the so-called “zombie traffic lights” will reduce accidental collisions between vehicles and distracted pedestrians in crosswalks.
“We cannot force them to take their eyes out of the smartphone and into the road. We need to find ways to put the road into their eyes ” he told AP.
The pilot program currently involves only one crosswalk in Tel Aviv, but may be employed more broadly based on the response from the community and its effect on injury prevention. The Netherlands, Australia and Singapore already have such lighted systems in crosswalks .
It appears that the response to “zombie lights” by people in Tel Aviv has been encouraging, but the broader issue is that instead of modifying a behavior that is potentially destructive or deadly, technology is being used to mitigate risk.
While it’s important to always remind people to look up and keep their heads out of their smartphones when crossing the street, modifying behaviors that become entrenched in our society can be difficult. As much as we want to warn people about the dangers of texting while walking using smartphones, it’s challenging to police this activity. Issuing fines may be one deterrent, and has already been employed in multiple cities in the U.S.
Large populated cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago have elevated numbers of pedestrian deaths relative to overall traffic fatalities, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Pedestrian deaths had been declining in the late 90s into the early 2000’s until 2009, when they started to increase again. While there is no hard data to back up the exact reason, its postulated that this spike is due to distracted pedestrians using cellphones.
Having a guardrail in place such as “zombie lights” is a step in the right direction which may help save lives and reduce injuries.