Dhara Bhatia Image Credit: Supplied


Dubai has just introduced it. Pedestrian lights on the ground at a traffic crossing to alert people. It is meant to reduce waiting times but also helps this latest category of people — smartphone zombies.

Who are they, you ask? Well, look around.

Walking into a pole, bumping into a stranger or stepping into traffic — all of these seem to be happening a lot with many people focused on the screens of their smartphones instead of watching where they are going. A study conducted by Australia’s University of Queensland showed that people who use their phones to text or read something while they walk are less likely to “look at their surroundings, keep their balance or walk in a straight line”.

Dhara Bhatia, a student in Dubai, is guilty of distracted walking and in the process has ignored those around her several times. She is aware that it is a bad habit, but doesn’t know how to stop.

“Many a times I have overshot my destination because I was distracted and realised much later that I was supposed to stop or turn.”

A study conducted in the US showed that when people used their phones while walking, they were 61 per cent more likely to go off course and 13 per cent more likely to overshoot their target.

So, what’s the solution?

Bhatia said: “I think everyone should switch on maps on their phones. Key in the destination and the app will tell you when you have arrived. That way, you’re bound to stop!”

According to US-based National Safety Council, half of the distracted walking injuries happen at home, the other half in public spaces. Nearly 80 per cent of the injuries are due to a fall, with majority of the people engaging in texting while walking being below the age of 40.

Suhail Hameed, a data auditor based in Dubai, confessed to being distracted by his phone while walking in a mall, and getting injured because he walked into a pillar.

He said: “My forehead banged against the hard surface, but luckily it wasn’t too bad. I was checking a message I had received on WhatsApp and had to respond immediately.”

During one of his many mall visits, in which he was distracted, he bumped into a woman who was standing with her family. “She was glaring at me and was not happy,” Hameed said.

He was so embarassed that he apologised, put his phone away and continued walking. A few minutes later, his phone was back in his hand.

He said: “I get distracted easily. There was a time when my friends refused to speak to me till I put my phone away. They are always complaining about my bad habit.”

In his opinion, the only solution is to keep yourself engrossed in other activities at all times. “On your phone, you’re active on social media platforms. But, inactive in real life. If we change that, it could be fun to stop checking our phones,” he said.

In January 2011, a video of a woman who fell into a fountain in the US went viral. The woman, who was clearly distracted and using her phone as she walked through a mall, was mocked by many social media users.

While there are those who are walking around like ‘smartphone zombies’, as they are known on social media, there is the other side of the coin with people who are trying to get others to stop.

Mohammad Zuhair, a petroleum engineer based in Abu Dhabi, is one of them. He comes across this habit a lot at his workplace. Many a times he walks into an elevator with people, who are too distracted to notice when their floor arrives and don’t disembark.

Zuhair said: “It’s a complete waste of my time! If a friend of mine does it, I just take their phone away. Almost all the time, they will go in the wrong direction as they are not paying attention. I’ll be guiding them through a mall or public space. It’s frustrating!”

He refers to it as an addiction and no matter how hard he tries, he says his efforts go to vain. In the end of the day, “they are adults and will make their own decisions”.

In Augsburg, a city in Germany, special traffic lights have been installed into the pavement at some tram stations. The flashing red bulbs are meant to get the attention of mobile phone users who aren’t looking up. In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, special signs have been installed to encourage pedestrians to stay safe when walking. In some states in the US, distracted walking is now an offence and you can get fined for it.

In Zuhair’s opinion, the fines are a solution because it would mean that people would stop texting as they walk and also mean higher employment as special officers would have to be deployed in busy areas to ensure people are not indulging in this bad habit.

He said: “Unless it’s an emergency or you’re expecting an urgent call, just finish what you need to do and then continue walking. It’s disrespectful and shows the people around you that you are not bothered about them.”