Alert! Shut down mobile devices in train stations

TOKYO - Japan's railway operators have launched a campaign to stop people from using smartphones or other mobile devices in stations due to an upsurge in accidents caused by inattentive travellers.

In the most serious incident - which could have ended in tragedy - a 10-year-old boy engrossed in using his mobile phone fell off the platform at Yotsuya Station in central Tokyo, as a commuter train was arriving.

The boy, who has not been named, squeezed into a space between the train wheels and the platform edge in the nick of time. He was lucky to sustain only minor injuries in the May incident.

According to statistics from JR East, which operates trains in eastern areas of Japan including Tokyo, there were 47 accidents involving passengers in 2007. These included people falling onto railway tracks or injuring other passengers by walking into them.

By 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, that number had climbed to 75.

The fear is that the public's preoccupation with messaging, playing games, surfing the Internet or doing one of the many activities on the go that mobile communications technology has enabled, will sooner or later result in a death.

"We started this new campaign as part of the effort we run every year to encourage better manners in travellers," a spokesman for JR East told The Straits Times.

The campaign is focused on portable game machines and mobile phones, he added, explaining: "Recently, increasing numbers of travellers can be seen walking around stations and on platforms while playing on game consoles or using their mobile phones."

The Platform Accident Zero Movement began in January and was introduced partly in response to calls from users of the train network for something to be done.

Large posters warning commuters not to use mobile devices are on display in major train stations throughout Tokyo and farther afield.

These are supplemented by announcements by station staff, who alert people using devices in potentially dangerous areas.

Recent studies have highlighted the potential danger of people walking while focusing on the screen of an electronic device.

In one experiment, Aichi University of Technology scientists found that people who use a mobile device while walking have just one- third of their normal horizontal field of vision.

In another study by the University of Tsukuba, more than 61 per cent of the subjects said they frequently or sometimes collide with other pedestrians while walking and using a mobile device.

"It's dangerous, but I've seen it so often recently," said Ms Hiroko Kamino, 31, an office worker from Saitama prefecture, north of Tokyo. "I once saw a man using his smartphone walk into a lamp post. It was funny... but it could have been much more serious."

With police also cracking down on people who use mobile phones while driving, the issue has become fodder for editorial writers. Suggesting that those who walk with their eyes fixed on smartphones are "walking barriers" or "walking weapons", the Mainichi Shimbun demanded in a June 26 editorial that schools and public institutions "educate people about the dangers they pose".

But it added that imposing regulations should be the last resort. "First, we must inform people about the issue and appeal for cooperation," it said.