Road safety alert over lethal ‘march of the smombies’

Video footage of a busy junction showed people crossing the road while distracted by their mobile phones. Picture: Toby Williams
Video footage of a busy junction showed people crossing the road while distracted by their mobile phones. Picture: Toby Williams
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Pedestrians with their eyes glued to their phones have become so prevalent they will force a rethink of road safety, Scottish researchers predict.

They said so-called “smombies“ (smartphone zombies) or “pedextrians” had created a new type of transport user that was already influencing the design of streets.

The first major study in Scotland of the dangers they pose is under way in Glasgow and will be presented at a conference in the city next month.

It includes video footage of a busy junction outside Glasgow Central Station, which showed people crossing the road distracted by their mobiles.

The study authors, from transport planners AECOM, said they had “experienced personal frustrations with smombies” every day getting to and from work.

Principal consultant Richie Fraser said: “Smombies are more likely to walk slower, change direction more frequently and are less likely to acknowledge other people, which exposes them to greater risk of an accident.

“However, most research to date has focused on in-vehicle distractions, so little is known about the implications of inattentive pedestrian behaviour.

“This can range in severity from colliding with other people to potentially fatal incidents caused by stepping in front of traffic.”

Fraser said numbers were unknown because victims were too embarrassed to admit being on their phones, but the AA had suggested smombies were a factor in the 12 per cent rise in UK pedestrian deaths between 2013 and 2014.

He said: “The rise of smombies has created a new transport user and we predict that consideration of this group will help shape future transport planning to support road safety aspirations such as pedestrian casualty reduction.”

Fraser said attempts to combat the hazard had included embedding traffic lights in pavements. Phone apps enabled pedestrians to text onto a camera screen so they could still see where they were going.

However, he added: “Introducing these could be seen to reward bad behaviour, and there is still a requirement for personal responsibility for road safety.”

He backed awareness campaigns, especially among 16 to 30-year-olds, who took the greatest risks.

But pedestrian campaigners disputed the focus on smombies. Living Streets Scotland director Stuart Hay said: “There is no evidence demonstrating the increase fatalities is down to distracted walking, so blaming a small selection of people who use phones while walking could be misguided. It is also a diversion from measures that make streets safer and easier to use, including wider pavements, better crossings and eliminating pavement parking.”