'Smombies': German cities seek to protect engrossed smartphone users

Two cities in Germany, Augsburg and Cologne, have embedded LED warning lights in the curbs at crosswalks to keep otherwise preoccupied pedestrians safe when they cross the street.

Ben Margot/AP/File
A man and woman check their phones at a crosswalk in San Francisco. Two cities in Germany are testing sidewalk embedded traffic signals to catch the eyes of pedestrians who look down at their phones instead up at traffic.

Do you find it hard to tear yourself away from your smartphone screen? Do you walk the streets and sidewalks firmly focused on your phone, oblivious to what may be happening around you?

If your honest answer is "yes," then you may want to consider moving to Germany, where two cities are testing a scheme of traffic lights embedded in the ground, aimed at pedestrians too busy with their phones to look up and attend to their surroundings.

Augsburg and Cologne are not alone in addressing the issue of "smombies" – smartphone zombies. Cities in other countries have already introduced various measures, and a wave of studies is investigating the modern-day phenomenon.

"It's important to remember that whatever is happening on the other end of your phone can wait 30 seconds until you get across the street," Corey Basch, an associate professor of public health at William Patterson University, writes in an email interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "Measures need to be taken to address this potentially dangerous behavior, which has now become normative."

Action in Augsburg was catalyzed by a tragedy in nearby Munich, when a 15-year-old girl was killed in March. A tram struck her while she was engrossed in her smartphone, earphones plugged in.

In Augsburg itself, two pedestrians absorbed in their phones have also recently been hit by the quiet electric trams, though they escaped with only minor injuries.

The problem has become so prevalent that Cologne and Augsburg have introduced a pilot scheme in which rows of LED lights have been embedded in the curb by various tram stops across both cities. When a street car approaches, the lights flash red to warn pedestrians who are staring down at their smartphones, hopefully breaking through their concentration and preventing a collision.

But, as anybody who lives in a modern city can testify, this behavior does not limit itself to the crossing of tramlines. Indeed, as German transportation research firm DEKRA revealed in a study of six European cities, about 17 percent of pedestrians use a smartphone when crossing the street.

"Our survey teams reported some extreme individual instances of distraction," said Clemens Klinke, a member of the DEKRA Management Board, in a company press release. "One thing that was observed repeatedly was groups of young people looking at a smartphone together while crossing the street. In one case, the entire group actually collided with a cyclist."

In a study of Manhattan streets in 2013, Dr. Basch and her colleagues found that more than one in four pedestrians were distracted by their phones while crossing intersections. She regards the scheme in Germany as "an innovative step," one that could potentially be of interest in the United States, should the implementation prove successful.

But Germany is not alone in addressing dangers inherent in smartphone use on the street. The Chinese city of Chongqing introduced a smartphone user lane on the sidewalk to separate smartphone users from other walkers in the hope of avoiding collisions, and Antwerp, Belgium, tested a similar scheme on a bigger scale.

New Jersey is even mulling over a bill that would fine pedestrians who cross the street while texting.

According to Urban Dictionary, a "smombie" is "A person walking around unaware of his or her surroundings entirely absorbed in their smart-phone."

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