Commuters warned of dangers of using smartphones while walking

June 04, 2013


In late May, a 10-year-old boy was walking along the edge of the train platform at Tokyo's JR Yotsuya Station, his rapt attention drawn to his cellphone's screen. According to eyewitnesses, the boy stumbled and fell off the platform onto the train tracks. Although he was lucky to be pulled up before an approaching train arrived, the 10-year-old suffered injuries to his face.

According to the transport ministry, 3,242 people accidentally fell from train platforms in fiscal 2011. Of that number, 18, or 0.6 percent, were using their cellphones at the time. While the number may not be high, in May 2010, one person died in such an accident at JR Higashi-Nakano Station.

Professor Katsumi Tokuda, University of Tsukuba, specializes in the study of ways to make it easier for people to get around. In May, he conducted a survey of 650 college students in the Tokyo and Osaka areas who commute by train. About 60 percent of the respondents said they often or occasionally bumped into or came close to bumping into others while walking as they used cellphones. Fifteen respondents said they had been injured in such cases. Ninety-seven percent of the mobile phones were smartphones.

"The spread of smartphones, which users concentrate on for longer periods of time, has vastly increased the danger," Tokuda said.

Bumping into others is not the only problem for smartphone users who focus on their displays while walking.

Osaka Prefecture has recorded the largest number of cases of groping and molestation for three consecutive years. The prefectural police analyzed the 859 indecent assault cases last year in which victims were assaulted on the street and found that in 14 percent of the cases, the victim was using a mobile or smartphone at the time of the attack.

"They (smartphone users) become less aware of their surroundings and become more vulnerable to an assault," a police official said.

Various companies have begun campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers associated with using smartphones while walking.

After the 10-year-old's accident at JR Yotsuya Station, East Japan Railway Co. officials have begun announcements at major stations and commuter lines in the Tokyo area that ask for restraint in the use of mobiles and smartphones while walking, because it could lead to accidents and injuries.

Still, on June 3, a number of people were observed using their cellphones while walking on the same JR Yotsuya Station platform from which the boy fell.

"Although there are times when I think it is dangerous, I tend to place priority on its convenience, such as in contacting my friends," a 21-year-old college student said.

Tokyo Metro Co. subway system has also begun making announcements warning of the dangers and is planning to place posters at stations to raise awareness.

NTT Docomo Inc., the nation's largest mobile phone company, has also begun a campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of using phones while walking. In a radio commercial currently being aired, a mother tells her children that it is dangerous to use mobile phones outdoors while walking.

Newspaper ads for the latest models also include a warning about the dangers of using the devices while walking.

The practice can also pose problems for people with disabilities.

Hiroshi Oda rides the JR Yamanote Line in Tokyo. The 59-year-old uses the braille blocks on train platforms because he is blind. Oda said recently there have been a lot of people bumping into him.

"Before, those around me would avoid coming into contact with me," he said.

There are some people who feel some kind of restrictions should be put in place.

Columnist Takashi Odajima has proposed an ordinance to ban the use of smartphones while walking. He cited the 2002 ordinance implemented by Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward that bans smoking on the streets.

"At first, there were both pro and con arguments (about the smoking ban)," he said. "But it eventually spread to various areas around Japan. There should be an experimental ban on smartphones."

Tokuda, however, is opposed to restrictions because he feels that sufficient efforts have not been made in educating users about proper etiquette for using smartphones.

The University of Tsukuba professor has come up with five rules for the use of the devices: Move to one side of the walkway and stop when using a smartphone; don't use it while using the stairs; don't look at it while leaving a train; don't use it on a crosswalk; and remove the earphones when looking at the screen.

Meanwhile, Kazuhiro Kozuka, professor of transportation engineering, Aichi University of Technology, studied the dangers involved in the use of smartphones while walking. In 2011, he conducted a test of how narrow an individual's field of vision became when using a smartphone. A camera was placed on the user's forehead to track eye movements. Eye movements were compared for crossing a 20-meter intersection while one's hands were free and while using Twitter on a smartphone.

The test found that when an individual had nothing in his or her hands, the eyes moved in various directions and to distant objects. However, when the smartphone was used, the eyes were focused almost exclusively on the smartphone screen, with occasional movement several meters in front of the user.

"The device can be a major threat to those who may not be able to make sudden movements, such as senior citizens, the disabled and young children," Kozuka said.

(This article was written by Ayako Nakada and Keiichiro Inoue.)

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This retouched photo shows commuters at JR Shinjuku Station using smartphones while walking and exiting trains. (Yosuke Fukudome)

This retouched photo shows commuters at JR Shinjuku Station using smartphones while walking and exiting trains. (Yosuke Fukudome)

  • This retouched photo shows commuters at JR Shinjuku Station using smartphones while walking and exiting trains. (Yosuke Fukudome)
  • A test shows a wide range of eye movements when the individual's hands are free. (Provided by Kazuhiro Kozuka)
  • A smartphone user's eye movement is concentrated on the screen while walking. (Provided by Kazuhiro Kozuka)

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