When the lights change at the scramble crossing near Tokyo’s Shibuya Station, one of the world’s busiest crosswalks, hundreds of people with their eyes glued to smartphone screens pick their way through the throng.
Despite being engrossed in their phones, playing the latest installment of Candy Crush or chatting with their friends on the Line messaging app, most manage to weave around cyclists, skateboarders and their fellow Tokyoites.
But the growing ranks of these cellphone addicts are turning cities like Tokyo, London, New York and Hong Kong into increasingly hazardous hot spots where zombified shoppers appear to be part of a vast game of human pinball.
“Hey, watch it!” barked a middle-aged salaryman as a hipster typing on his smartphone slammed into him during one recent Friday evening rush hour.
“Incidents involving people walking or on bicycles account for 41 percent of phone-related accidents,” said Tetsuya Yamamoto, a senior official in the Tokyo Fire Department’s disaster prevention and safety division. “If people continue walking around looking at their phones, I think we could see more accidents happening.”
It goes beyond the innocuous inconvenience where both people apologize before continuing on their merry way.
The Tokyo Fire Department, which runs the ambulance service in the metropolis, says that in the four years to 2013, a total of 122 people had to be rushed to hospitals after accidents caused by pedestrians using cellphones.
As well as the vaguely comical incidents of businessmen smacking into lampposts or tripping over dogs, this number also included a middle-aged man who died after straying onto a railway crossing while staring at his phone.
According to media reports, around half of the 56 bodies recovered from Mount Ontake after the September volcanic eruption were found clutching mobile phones with photos of the deadly lava and ash on them. Apparently, they thought it important to be able to show their social media friends what was happening.
More than half of Japanese now own a smartphone and the proportion is rising fast, including children who customarily walk to and from school.
Research by NTT Docomo estimates that a pedestrian’s average field of vision while staring down at a smartphone is just 5 percent of what their eyes take in normally.
“Children wouldn’t be safe in that situation,” said Hiroshi Suzuki, manager of corporate social responsibility at the mobile phone giant. “It’s dangerous and it’s our job to make sure it doesn’t actually happen.”
The company ran a computer simulation of what could occur in Shibuya if everyone crossing the intersection was looking at their smartphones. The results, based on a fairly average 1,500 people swarming over the road at any one time, were alarming: 446 collisions, 103 knockdowns and 21 dropped phones. Only around a third would get to the other side without incident.
That 82 of the 103 people who fell to the ground in the simulation managed to cling onto their precious phones tells its own story.
Suzuki travels to schools nationwide teaching children through cartoons how to be responsible with smartphones.
“We use the story of the tortoise and the hare,” he said. “The hare shoots off tapping away on his smartphone, and then falls down a hole. We want the children to know they could be the hare.”
Fidgety phone users dawdling along at a snail’s pace, forcing cyclists and stroller-pushing moms to swerve out of the way, have become such an irritant in Tokyo that public notices have started to appear warning offenders to expect “icy stares” and appealing to the nation’s sense of social harmony, assuming people look up from their phones to read them.
Smartphone apps activated by sensors that flash warning signs or display the pavement on the screen have also been developed in response to the problem.
Tokyo is just one of the places struggling to cope with this very 21st century menace.
In China, an amusement park in the southwestern megalopolis of Chongqing has divided a walkway on its grounds into two lanes, one with signs posted “No mobile phones” and the other reading “Mobile phone use permitted but all consequences are your responsibility.”
Recorded announcements on Hong Kong’s subway network warn potentially oblivious passengers in Cantonese, Mandarin and English that they are about to step onto an escalator, while in one city in New York state there was even a bid to legislate against the use of electronic devices while crossing the road.
Docomo’s Suzuki said despite Tokyo’s high population density and huge number of residents — around 35 million in the greater urban area — there’s no need yet for people to wear crash helmets when they have to pop down to the shops. “I don’t think we will see the need for that in the near future. But our message is that it could happen. We’re all potential victims,” he said.