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Are flashing footpath LED lights the solution to pedestrians distracted by smartphones?

Targeted at distracted pedestrians, flashing footpath LEDs lights might help improve road safety.

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) believes it has the solution to stopping pedestrians from being distracted by their smartphones, flashing footpath LED lights.

According to QUT study, flashing LED lights at ground level near road or rail intersections catch the attention of pedestrians looking down at their smartphones.

The study brought 24 people (aged 20 to 43 years) into a lab to assess their behaviour while using a smartphone.

Fitted with eye trackers, the lab rats were given a visually intensive task to perform on a smartphone while walking along a ‘footpath’ with flashing LEDs at ground and eye level. Every time they noticed the lights, they pushed a button.

The same scenario was played out with the participants wearing headphones that played an auditory version of the task.

The conclusion? Peripheral vision was used to notice the lights, with reaction time at ground level improved by 159 milliseconds for flashing LEDs one metre away (when compared to eye level). This improved to 43 milliseconds when two metres away.

Chief investigator Gregoire Larue said: “It’s only a tiny amount of time, but it can be the difference between life and death if you are crossing the road.

“Ground-level flashing lights were just as successful at catching their attention as face-level lights are for people not on their phones.

“However, proximity is the key – the fastest response times happened when they were one metre from the lights. 

“This is consistent with close-range peripheral vision and existing research that shows walkers tend to fixate on the ground around one or two steps ahead.”

Smartphone distraction is a global road safety issue, according to Mr Larue, although most research and safety campaigns have so far focused on distracted drivers.

“There are now growing concerns about ‘distracted walking’, particularly pedestrian distraction from looking down at mobile phones,” he said.

“Existing studies have shown large numbers of pedestrians are distracted at intersections when crossing roads. These include one American study that showed 25 per cent of pedestrians observed across 10 Manhattan intersections were distracted – either from talking on their phone, looking at their phone or using headphones.”

Germany, Singapore and the Netherlands are among the countries now trialling flashing footpath LEDs at busy intersections. And even Australia is getting in on the action, with Sydney and Melbourne also putting them to test.