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For Distracted Phone Users, Germany Puts Traffic Lights on the Ground

The sidewalk signals warn smartphone users when they’re about to walk into the path of a train.

Thomas Hosemann/SWA

How many times have you done it—been so engrossed in your phone while walking that you slam into a light pole, dog, or speeding train?

If it’s the latter, chances are you’re probably not reading this story, and one German city wants to prevent that from happening. Stadtwerke Augsburg, a public-works/transportation provider that works for the Bavarian burg of Augsburg, has outfitted two rail stations with experimental traffic signals for oblivious phone users. They’re on the ground, obviously, and they blink green for “safe” and red for “about to be pancaked by a vehicle weighing in the neighborhood of 50 tons.”

Thomas Hosemann/SWA

It’s a nifty idea, and one that might work in the U.S., where a recent rise in pedestrian injuries and deaths has been partly blamed on distracted phone users aka “petextrians.” As Stadtwerke Augsburg explains in a press release (via Google Translate), “The stubborn look at the smartphone can lead on the road to dangerous situations.” That includes having people who completely miss red lights because they’re looking down, so the agency added red LED lights along the curb at two stations, on a trial basis, “to enhance security for smartphone users” by flashing the lights when a tram approaches.

The lights are visible from a distance, Stadtwerke Augsburg adds, so they might also come in handy for distracted bicyclists. Of course, these safety benefits are lost (as they so often are) to Internet commenters. At the news site BR24, people wonder if it is so difficult even for a “few seconds not to stare at [a] smartphone,” and opine the technology “may be partially useful for [the] visually impaired, but does not protect against... idiots.”

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.