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Hong Kong’s phone-obsessed pedestrians get some extra help at the crosswalk

A pilot project aims to improve traffic safety by projecting a red light onto the ground when it’s not safe for people to cross the street.
Testing of safety device at a road crossing., Hong Kong, China - 07 Jul 2022
A device being tested in Hong Kong projects a red light onto the ground to signal pedestrians not to cross the road. Jerome Favre / EPA via Shutterstock

HONG KONG — In a city where pedestrians glued to their phones are liable to walk into traffic, the “red man” at crosswalks is getting some backup.

Devices recently installed at several road crossings in Hong Kong project a red light onto the edge of the sidewalk — as well as any pedestrians standing there — whenever the “Don’t Walk” signal is engaged, in a pilot project meant to improve pedestrian safety.

The devices address prevalent pedestrian risk factors such as “inattentiveness” and “heedless crossing,” which have been worsened by increased phone use in the city, the Hong Kong Transport Department said in an email. 

The Chinese territory of 7.4 million recorded seven pedestrian deaths from January to June, according to the department. Jaywalkers face a fine of 2,000 Hong Kong dollars ($255).

The devices, which have been installed on traffic lights at seven crosswalks in various parts of Hong Kong, will be monitored for efficiency. If the six-month testing period is a success, the system will be implemented more widely. 

Testing of safety device at a road crossing., Hong Kong, China - 07 Jul 2022
The initiative was inspired by similar projects in other countries.Jerome Favre / EPA via Shutterstock

The initiative was inspired by similar projects in other countries, the Transport Department said. Many major cities in mainland China have equipped crosswalks with LED lights that shine up from the road to keep distracted jaywalkers alert. 

A recent survey by NBC News in the Causeway Bay area of Hong Kong found that out of 100 pedestrians entering a crosswalk with the new device, at least half were interacting with their cellphones.  

Nick Chau said that he was excited when he saw the “unique” lights and that he took a couple of pictures along with his girlfriend. 

“I’ve seen the lights popping up on my friends’ Instagram, but it’s my first time to see them,” he said. “Most of my friends are saying it’s interesting and it could help them while they’re walking with their phone.” 

Adrian Chan also snapped a few pictures of the lights, which he said have “become a bit of a landmark already.” 

He said he didn’t think the lights were helpful personally, but “maybe subconsciously, all the red lights will help stop people from jaywalking.”

Others didn’t notice the lights until after they were pointed out to them.

Ian Brownlee, the managing director of the Hong Kong planning consultancy Masterplan Limited and a member of the Citizens Task Force on Land Utilization, said that while the lights could help, pedestrians in the crowded city also face other safety issues, like narrow sidewalks. 

“In areas where there’s a crossing and pedestrians have to wait for lights to change, it can become a congestion point, and jaywalking is generally a problem in these areas,” he said.