|(Thomas Hosemann/Stadtwerke Augsburg)|
by Rick Noack, The Washington Post, 25 April 2016
Few nations in the world take red traffic lights more seriously than Germany.
Foreign visitors frequently wonder why crowds of Germans wait for traffic lights to turn green when there are no cars in sight.
That is why officials in the city of Augsburg became concerned when they noticed a new phenomenon: Pedestrians were so busy looking at their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights.
The city has attempted to solve that problem by installing new traffic lights embedded in the pavement — so that pedestrians constantly looking down at their phones won't miss them.
"It creates a whole new level of attention," city spokeswoman Stephanie Lermen was quoted as saying. Lermen thinks the money is wisely spent: A recent survey conducted in several European cities, including Berlin, found that almost 20 percent of pedestrians were distracted by their smartphones. Younger people are most likely to risk their safety for a quick look at their Facebook profiles or WhatsApp messages, the survey found.
That problem may be even more widespread in the United States: A survey by the University of Washington found that 1 in 3 Americans is busy texting or working on a smartphone at dangerous road crossings. The Department of Transportation has established a clear connection between such habits and an increase in pedestrian deaths.
According to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, not everyone thinks the new lights are a good idea. Some commentators have complained that the project was a waste of taxpayers' money.
"Until now, I didn't even notice them," one young pedestrian told the local Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper after reporters made him aware of the lights.
But city officials say their work is justified: The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks.
Augsburg is not the only city that has been forced to react to an increasing number of smartphone-obsessed pedestrians.
In 2014, the Chinese city of Chongqing made headlines when it experimented with a 165-foot stretch of pavement where pedestrians had to choose between walking on a normal lane and one reserved for smombies -- a portmanteau of "smartphone" and "zombies" used to describe people walking and staring at their devices.
"There are lots of elderly people and children in our street, and walking with your cellphone may cause unnecessary collisions here," marketing official Nong Cheng told the Associated Press at that time.
Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.