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Risky lack of attention

Dagmar Breitenbach
July 17, 2017

Heads bent, eyes riveted to their smartphones, completely distracted - pedestrians, too, can pose an enormous risk to road safety. A nationwide German campaign hopes to raise awareness.

people intent on their phones
Image: imago/Future Image

Lost to the world, headphones clamped on their ears,  typing or reading messages, playing games on the move -  what Germans call "smombies," or smartphone zombies, are not only an everyday sight on German streets, they endanger their lives and the lives of others. That is not true only for drivers and bike riders, but also for pedestrians.

According to the ACE, Germany's second-largest automobile club, 60 percent of casualties due to accidents in German inner cities involve people on bikes and pedestrians. Add that to the fact that the number of smartphone users in Germany has risen steeply over the past years, from 8.4 million in 2010 to about 50 million today.

Risk to road safety

Official statistics show that the number of overall traffic accidents in Germany has risen slightly over the past three years, reaching 2.6 million in 2016.

four people in red vests watch a pedesrtrian staring at cell phoen
Counting pedestrians in Celle Image: ACE/Emmerling

While there are no figures on exactly how many accidents occur because people are distracted by their smartphones, the risk is evident, and experts suspect a lack of attention is to blame in many cases. The number of unreported accidents due to smartphone distraction is believed to be high, says Meliha Sarper from the ACE press office.

Every glance at a mobile phone is a distraction when in a situation involving traffic, says Martin Lotz, head of the Cologne Police Traffic Authority - "be it drivers or pedestrians." They can create dangerous situations for themselves and others because they are distracted, he warned last week.

In fact, an estimated 17 percent of pedestrians in large European cities engage with their smartphones in some way while walking, the Dekra transportation research firm reported in 2016.

Multi-tasking is a myth

In response to this alarming phenomenon, the ACE is conducting a campaign - "Hands off your phone in traffic" - in 300 cities nationwide to raise awareness of the risks when pedestrians are immersed in their phones, says the ACE's Meliha Sarper.

two men with vests counting others walking across a street
In Essen, ACE volunteers counting pedestrians found that almost one out of five was immersed in a smartphone Image: ACE

"Volunteers from local ACE branches set up at busy intersections for at least an hour, and count pedestrians," she told DW, adding that the campaign began in mid-March and ends in September.

In Cologne, one out of seven pedestrians had their heads bent over their phones, or had earbuds firmly in their ears while crossing the street and were more or less oblivious to their surroundings, says Tolga Kaya, who patrolled a crossing for about an hour in Germany's fourth-largest city last week. "I felt that was a lot," the 30-year-old ACE employee told DW.

The percentage was even higher in early July in the city of Essen. Of 842 pedestrians, 154 were distracted, Kaya notes: "That's 18.3 percent!"

Stay alert

Some people are so distracted they cross on a red light, or don't notice approaching trams and buses. Cologne last year installed rows of LED lights into the curb at several street car stops that flash when a tram approaches, warning pedestrians with their eyes glued to the phone to pay attention and look up. The project is still in its test phase.

Pedestrians staring at their mobile phones while walking down city streets do not pay fines, unlike bike riders, who are fined 25 euros ($28.6) and drivers, who must shell out 60 euros. In both cases, fines are about to be increased to 55 euros and up to 100 euros respectively.