The word “smombie” is one of the most recent additions to the German language. Last November, the term – a mashup of “smartphone” and “zombie”, referring to oblivious smartphone users staggering around cities like the undead – was voted Youth Word of the Year in Germany.
The disease is extremely virulent. Which caused two German cities to install traffic lights that face up at pedestrians … on the sidewalk! The southern city of Augsburg recently installed the system at two crowded train stations after a manager saw something similar in Cologne. Cologne installed similar devices in 2011, according to the German transportation research institute STUVA.
The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks. Distracted walking has become a dangerous problem in recent years. A 2013 study from Ohio State University found that the number of people injured while walking and using their phones more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, when more than 1,500 went to the emergency room. A professor involved in the study, Jack Nasar, said he “wouldn’t be surprised if the number of injuries to pedestrians caused by cell phones doubles again between 2010 and 2015.”
In the US, cities such as Portland, Seattle and Cleveland have experimented with talking buses that alert pedestrians during turns. Rexburg, Idaho has even imposed fines of $50 for texting while walking.
And in 2014, a theme park in the Chinese city of Chongqing has experimented with a special “phone lane” for pedestrians, itself based on an earlier experiment in Washington, DC.
After a trial period, Augsburg officials will interview tram drivers and passengers before deciding whether to roll the lights out to other stations.
“This is not just about smartphones. The crossing here is so busy and dangerous that we are used to the screeching noise of the tram’s emergency breaks,” says Sebastian Hrabak, owner of the restaurant Schwarze Kiste at Haunstetterstraße station. “But since the lights were installed last week, there hasn’t been a single dangerous incident.”