A look back at the iPhone and the future of distracted walking ‘Smombies’

July 7, 2017 GMT

It’s real easy to become wistful in recalling a time before smartphones, when the only portable device you had was a flip phone. Do you remember the time before ubiquitous cellphone cameras that display images on demand, when a portable camera was film in a box that you dropped off at the drug store to develop and pick up later? Well, it was a decade ago — June 29, 2007, to be precise — when Apple shipped a new iPhone technology that would obliterate its competition and become the commonplace standard across the industry and society.

When introducing what appeared to be a scene from science fiction, Apple announced that the “iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone. We are all born with the ultimate pointing device — our fingers — and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”

And with that, the late Steve Jobs shook up the world. “Every once in a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” declared Jobs at the time. To date, The Associated Press reports that “Apple has sold more than 1 billion iPhones since its debut, spawning millions of mobile applications and prodding other technology companies to make similar smartphones that, for many people, have become like phantom limbs.”

The ever-present mobile phone has spawned new walking and driving patterns that have become road hazards in cities around the globe. The Anglia Ruskin IT Research Institute released a new study on distracted walking “Smombies” (an actual term that is the mashup of smartphone zombies) and it shows that using mobile phones — especially texting — alters one’s gait.

“We found that using a phone means we look less frequently, and for less time, at the ground, but we adapt our visual search behavior and our style of walking so we’re able to negotiate static obstacles in a safe manner. This results in phone users adopting a slow and exaggerated stepping action. Our findings indicate that phone users adopt a cautious approach when faced with fixed objects on the ground. Accidents are likely to be the result of objects suddenly appearing that phone users were not aware of — for example other pedestrians or vehicles,” said the lead author Dr Matthew Timmis, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at the UK-based university.

Timmis added: “China has already started segregating footpaths with special lanes for those using their phones. Initiatives are also being introduced in a number of European countries to place fixed warnings on the ground to alert pedestrians to the presence of roads and tram tracks. These could help to reduce future accidents.”

In reviewing the findings, I could not help but to recall the big 2012 guffaw folk had when the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office sent out a media release on April Fool’s Day introducing an “E-Lane,” a designated sidewalk painted to assist pedestrians who walk and talk on their electronic devices. Then-Mayor Michael A. Nutter was quoted in in the press release stating: “Stand on any sidewalk in Philadelphia you will see fellow citizens with busy lives who can’t take the time to look up from their iPhones, BlackBerries and other electronic devices. The E-Lane is a safe and convenient option for those distracted walkers and should make sidewalks safer for the rest of us. More Philadelphians than ever before rely on mobile technology to do business and stay in touch with family and friends. We need to accommodate them.”

While the city was speaking in jest, it was also raising awareness on the serious issue of pedestrian safety. Currently, cellphone distraction has become such a problem that it has carved out a new category in the annual National Safety Council statistical report. According to NSC’s 2015 report, “Injury Facts,” “distracted walking incidents involving cellphones accounted for more than 11,100 injuries between 2000 and 2011.”

According to the NSC, the best way to prevent senseless injury (or even death) is summed up in four words: “Head up, phone down.”