Netherlands town installs traffic lights for pedestrians walking and texting

It's dubbed "wexting" — walking while texting. So-called distracted walking can certainly be annoying, and some argue it's a public safety hazard. Now, a small town in the Netherlands is testing a novel approach to address those safety concerns.

Countries need better data on distracted walking to see if LED lights in a sidewalk work

Canada lacks data on smartphone-related pedestrian collisions, said Ahsan Habib, a transportation professor at Dalhousie University. (CBC)

It's dubbed "wexting" — walking while texting.

So-called distracted walking can certainly be annoying, and some argue it's a public safety hazard. Now, a small town in the Netherlands is testing a novel approach to address those safety concerns.

CBC tech columnist Dan Misener explains. 

What is this small Dutch town doing to address distracted walking?

A team in the town of Bodegraven has installed traffic signals in the sidewalk at various intersections. The idea is that, if you're walking while looking down at your phone, you'll still be able to see the traffic signals.

Just like road traffic signals, they turn green when it's safe to cross and red when there's traffic on the road. They also flash when the light is about to change and are synced with the main traffic signals.

These lights have been installed at intersections close to schools and are part of a pilot project that has been running for about six weeks.

The team behind the lights says that if the pilot is successful, it hopes to sell this technology elsewhere.

Even though this is just one example, I think it's a good excuse to take a closer look at the broader issue here — how our digital devices impact our attention, especially out in the physical world.

What do we know about distracted walking here in Canada?

To find out more about this, I called Ahsan Habib. He's a transportation professor at Dalhousie University and studies road safety.

He told me that here in Canada, we simply don't have very good information about this phenomenon because much of the statistics come from police collision reports, which use broad categories such as inattentive crossing.

An inattentive crossing could be the result of looking at a smartphone or listening to music or walking a dog.

There is no doubt in our mind that distracted walking is creating multiple levels of issues for road safety.- Ahsan Habib, Dalhousie University

There's very little specific information about smartphone-related pedestrian collisions.

"We are still utilizing some police reporting form which was designed in the '60s or '70s, so it's very important for our transportation field to start recognizing this new phenomenon which wasn't present say, 10 years ago or five years ago," Habib said. 

Europe is doing a much better job of collecting specific information about distracted walking, he said, and he would like to see Canadian agencies do the same. 

Other than putting traffic signals in the ground, what other measures have been proposed?

There have been a number of technological solutions proposed elsewhere.

For instance, there are a handful of smartphone apps that are designed to prompt pedestrians to look up.

For instance, one app called Audio Aware will use your smartphone's microphone to listen for potential hazards, such screeching tires or sirens. 

Another, called CrashAlert, was built by researchers at the University of Manitoba. It uses a depth-sensing camera to look for obstacles in front of you to stop you from running into them while using your phone.

Of course, legislation has also been proposed as a solution. 

Many cities, including Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and Halifax, have debated putting in bans.

A poll last year suggests that about two-thirds of Canadians would support banning mobile devices while pedestrians are in roadways. Of course, with a ban, education and enforcement become the key challenges.

When the discussion on a distracted walking ban hit Toronto, Omar Plummer, seen here, told CBC he thinks a ban on texting and walking would be "really crazy." (CBC)

Distracted walking can be annoying, but is it actually dangerous?

There's some debate about that, partly due to the lack of good Canadian stats. But there's evidence to support the idea that distracted walking is a safety hazard.

In Nova Scotia, where Habib studies traffic safety, four per cent of pedestrian collisions happen due to inattention, which includes distracted walking.

Beyond that, Habib told me that distracted walking can create near-misses, which aren't usually reported.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, Habib is confident distracted walking is an issue.

"There is no doubt in our mind that distracted walking is creating multiple levels of issues for road safety," he said.

For instance, in 2010, Ontario's chief coroner found that pedestrians were more likely to be killed in traffic if they were using electronic devices.

Researchers at the University of Washington found that pedestrians seen texting at high-risk intersections were four-times less likely to look both ways before crossing or to obey traffic lights. They also spent more time in the intersection.

A road sign Warning Against pedestrians focusing on their smartphones is pictured on February 2, 2016 near the old town in Stockholm. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Are we likely to see LED strips in Canadian sidewalks soon?

As we said off the top, the LED lights in Bodegraven are a pilot project.

I suspect the company behind the lights would like for the pilot to be successful, before expanding to other locations. But I think there's a bigger point here, which is that the technology by itself isn't enough.

Yes, you can install a strip of LED lights in a sidewalk and make it easy for smartphone users to see the traffic signals. But the the lights are just one piece: you also need education about the lights.

And if you ever want to understand whether the lights are effective, you need data —  measurable, empirical evidence.

For me, that's the big lesson. 

As is so often the case, the technology alone isn't enough.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.


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