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Crossing signals put in roads for ‘smombies’

Mar 26,2018
Living in the world’s most wired nation, it’s easy to graze pedestrians glued to their smartphones, or worse, crash into them. When Korean police saw the accident figures, the distracted attention problem was difficult to ignore, and locally, oblivious pedestrians gained a nickname: smombies, a portmanteau of smartphone and zombies.

The biggest problem for smombies is crosswalks, because they don’t bother checking the pedestrian crossing signals.

According to a survey of 971 people by the Korea Road Traffic Authority in 2015, nearly one out of every five people in middle school or above were hit or barely escaped being hit by a car while crossing a street because they were occupied with their phones. Almost half of the respondents said they faced similar hazards when passing narrow alleys.

The Hyundai Insurance Research Center counted 177 cases last year in which a pedestrian was involved in a car accident due to distraction from a smartphone, up 51 percent from 117 cases in 2013.

Instead of campaigning against smartphone addiction, the Korean National Police Agency decided to adapt to the social change - by building pedestrian crossing signals into the pavement, helping smartphone users know when to cross roads safely without having to look up.

The project was approved late last year by the agency, and in January, it was tested for a month on a busy three-way intersection in Daegu. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Suwon and Yangju, both in Gyeonggi, also plan to adopt the system for three months beginning later this month.

“The conventional pedestrian signals fail miserably in attracting attention from smartphone users,” said an officer from the police agency. “We thought it was necessary to adjust to the change in crosswalk culture.” When the initiative was test-run in Daegu last January, he continued, more pedestrians actually followed pedestrian signals.

The new pedestrian signals are 10 centimeters (3.9 inches) in width and 6 to 8 meters in length, placed at each end of a crosswalk and made out of LEDs. They glow green or red, depending on the status of the traffic signal. They’re covered in reinforced plastic and waterproof.

Police officers said one minor glitch is that the in-ground pedestrian signals are still dim compared to their traditional counterparts.

The Korea Road Traffic Authority will gauge the effectiveness of the system once they start running for three months in Daegu, Suwon and Yangju. The city governments of Seoul and Suncheon, South Jeolla, have expressed interest in adopting the LED strips.

BY LIM SUN-YOUNG [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]