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This city in Germany put blinking lights on the sidewalk because you won’t stop looking at your phone

Tony Wagner Apr 27, 2016
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A workplace sign in Germany warns of so-called "smombies" — walkers distracted by their smartphones. 
A_Peach/Flickr via Creative Commons

A city in Germany has given up on getting people to get off their phones when they cross the street. 

Augsburg is experimenting with red lights embedded in the sidewalk that will blink when it’s not safe to cross, German channel N-TV reported. The program comes a month after a 15-year-old was killed in nearby Munich when she walked in front of a street car while looking at her smartphone with earbuds in. An Augsburg spokesperson told N-TV the city is focusing on areas with lots of young “smombies” — a combination of the words “smartphone” and “zombies” that is used to describe people who text and walk.

Pedestrian deaths jumped 15 percent since 2009, according to a government report from last year. It’s a spike that correlates to smartphone proliferation.

The Chinese city of Chongqing tried something similar a couple years ago, dividing the sidewalks with a separate lane for smombies. The worry there was people not paying attention and running into the elderly or children. At the time the AP noted the experiment wasn’t really working — people barely noticed the new pavement markings, especially if they were on their phones.

Before that, way back in 2006, a PR firm put pads around lampposts on a London street so poor, early-adopter smombies wouldn’t hurt themselves. 

It’s an issue we’ve been struggling with in the U.S. as well. Last month New Jersey’s legislature weighed a new law that would dole out jail time or a $50 fine to distracted walkers, and several other states have considered penalties in the past.

But fines and paint are one thing; tearing up sidewalks and is another. This story’s gotten a lot of coverage today, maybe because it feels like a concession to smartphone addiction after years of fruitlessly shaming people into getting off their phones. After all, is a smombie lane all that different from a movie theater with texting?

It’s time to shamble, distractedly, into the future.

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