June 14, 2016

Europe’s smartphone-proof roads

Economy

A sudden brake. A car horn hooting. A driver shouting from behind the windscreen, just like in a fish tank. A pedestrian oblivious of the surroundings about to cross the road. He’s on a zebra crossing but he’s walking on clouds. A set of headphones is disappearing into his ears: he’s listening to music, or maybe a voice message. His eyes are glued to the screen. That’s how he crosses the road, absorbed in his thoughts.

Raise your hand if it never happened to you, regardless of which side of the windscreen you were on. It happens so often that Germany has recently minted a brand new neologism: smombie, smartphone plus zombie. That blind, slow stride associated with the living dead, fictional characters, is exactly the same adopted by the pedestrian kidnapped by his own pocket-size screen. Looking down at his mobile, everything happening in the surroundings turns into a background not worthy of attention. The pedestrian is following an imaginary Pied Piper, who will take him to destination regardless of what he will find on the road.

People in Italy are ending up too on newspaper front pages due to accidents caused by smartphone-related distraction. A real threat to road safety. According to a survey mentioned by the Guardian carried out by German vehicle inspection company Dekra, which has been operating in the safety field for decades, the 17% of pedestrians (on a sample of 14,000 people who live in the main European cities) do use a smartphone while walking in the street. Their average age? Between 25 and 35 years old.

While the US has tackled the problem the old-fashioned way – handing out fines up to $50 to those who are walking and texting at the same time – in Europe the city of Augusta in Bavaria has decided to come up with an innovative solution: a floor-level traffic light. It has installed on an experimental basis some LED lights on the asphalt, bright lines parallel to the kerb that serve as traffic lights. A red beam is clearly visible on the floor in order to halt the smombies’ typical inattentive lowered-eyed walk. In Munich also some special experimental light signals embedded in the asphalt are being set in place: able to communicate with smartphones, they will send a warning when needed through a dedicated app.

Now we only have to hope that at the other side of the windscreen, inside the car, the smartphone is safely resting in the driver’s pocket.

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