Cities act to combat 'smartphone zombies'

Cities act to combat 'smartphone zombies'

With headphones on and mobile phone in hand just like many other American teenagers, Christina Morris-Ward, 15, was walking to school when she was hit by an oncoming car just as she was crossing a street near her Maryland high school.

She died that Halloween morning, two years ago.

"She was on her phone, she tweeted at 6.54am saying she wished she had put on a bigger jacket, and 7.03am was the time she was hit," Ms Gwen Ward, 41, Christina's mother, tells The Straits Times, ahead of the United Nations' World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, which was yesterday.

While comedic episodes of people walking towards bears or falling off piers while glued to their smartphones have made the rounds on social media, there is growing realisation that distracted walking can lead to tragedy.

The smartphone zombie is a hazard and this needs to be addressed through education, technology and perhaps even the law.

While people seem to think that walking and texting would not put them in harm's way, the statistics suggest otherwise.

In 2010, more than 1,500 pedestrians in the US were hurt while talking on their mobile phones, according to a study by Ohio State University, compared with some 256 incidents in 2005.

Co-author of the study Jack Nasar, a professor of city and regional planning, says he expects the number to continue to rise, especially with all the multiple distractions available on a smartphone such as checking social media.

"What happens when you walk and use your phone is that you are moving, but your head is somewhere else," he tells The Straits Times.

The extent to which one is distracted has even been quantified.

Stony Brook University conducted tests and found that talking on the phone while walking causes a 16 per cent reduction in speed, while texting and walking cuts speed by 33 per cent.

Furthermore, those who texted while walking often veered off course and increased their distance travelled by 13 per cent.

Despite all these studies, people often say "that's not me, I can drive and talk, or walk and talk on my phone", says Dr Nasar.

Yet, in the busy streets of Singapore, New York or London, it is unlikely that one could walk down the street without bumping into a fellow smartphone zombie.

Some cities have, of course, acknowledged the problem with a tongue-in-cheek response.

In London, for example, lamp posts along East London's Brick Lane were padded to prevent mobile phone addicts from hurting themselves. While the Twittersphere lit up with talk about expanding the Brick Lane project, it was really just a public relations stunt by a British directory assistance company and Living Streets, a charity dedicated to making streets more pedestrian friendly.

China's south-western city of Chongqing also came up with a playful solution - drawing lines on the pavement to create separate walking lanes for phone addicts and phone-free pedestrians.

While a marketing official for the city's entertainment zone told reporters in earnest that the move would protect elderly people and children from "unnecessary collisions", it has become more of a tourist attraction, with people posing with or without phones in the appropriate lanes.

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