I couldn’t help noticing the recent news reported in several newspapers that Sydney has become the latest city to install traffic lights in their pavements. The ‘in-ground traffic light technology’ was not fitted for artistic effect or as an aid to help guide dogs and children navigate crowded streets. The traffic lights have been mounted in the city’s business district to stem the growing number of accidents caused by distracted pedestrians who walk while using their smartphones. This was prompted by research that found that pedestrian deaths in New South Wales had increased by 50% from the previous year with many being caused by those who attempt to speak, text and listen to music on their phones while walking. Unsurprisingly, it was found that pedestrians who are engrossed in telephone conversations are less alert to their surroundings. But even worse, pedestrians who text and stroll are less likely to walk in a straight line while those who listen to music are four times more likely to take risks when crossing a road. Basically, when pedestrians use smartphones they begin to walk and behave like an average toddler and I am no different. In fact, on three occasions when I have texted and walked through cities, I have looked up after finishing a lengthy text only to find that I am completely lost. And I really do mean lost, as in not having a clue which direction I should be walking in to get wherever it was I was supposed to be going.
But at least many governments are starting to recognise this because using our smartphones to manage our lives while walking has become an accepted cultural norm. In effect, it is too late to try persuading us to put away our mobiles when we walk and look where we are going and far easier to find innovative solutions that will help to prevent us from causing so many accidents in busy cities. Because, after all, the multitude of different apps available that help us organise our work, children and home from our smartphones seems to grow every day. As we begin to use increasingly sophisticated apps in more aspects of our lives our smartphones are becoming essential to us and are involved in our daily decisions. Should I go for a run? I’ll just check my weather app (rather than look out the window or venture outside to check the temperature). Then I’ll use my running app to record it, rate it and share it with everyone I’m ‘friends’ with.
To be clear, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with using apps and it is amazing how technological advances have allowed us to carry around what is essentially a mini-computer in our pockets. Maybe not all apps are useful or work perfectly but even if my running app annoyingly measures my runs as being shorter than my husband’s whenever we run together, I continue to use it. However, I think our app habit has now become so endemic that our smartphones are a central part of our lives. Which means that we depend on them and are still distracted even when we are relaxing at home. But this also means that we are just as likely to cause an accident as when we were on a city pavement. Unfortunately, I found this to be never so true as in the countryside, where distracted smartphone apps’ users have been causing me some cycling mishaps.
Reluctantly, I have had to get back in the saddle again as I have started to train for an upcoming triathlon and duathlon that I signed up for. Although I had been keeping up the running throughout the winter months, I hadn’t swum or cycled since last autumn and wasn’t exactly looking forward to doing either. I thought I would start out slowly and I began to go out cycling with one of my sons who had offered to retrain me in how to clip in and clip out of my bike’s death cleats. The first ride went very well and apart from almost falling twice, I finished it feeling slightly more confident. However, last week it did not exactly go according to plan.
We left home cycling on our usual route but after only 15min, we could no longer ignore the random rattling noises of my son’s bike that clearly had some ‘issues’. At a crossroads in many ways, he abandoned the ride while I decided to keep going, thinking that I really should be able to do this cycling thing on my own. And for a while I was doing great and even starting to imagine enjoying it. But as it was unusually nice weather I was, of course, not the only one out there. In fact, there were several groups of cyclists on the roads riding in mini pelotons while many other people were running, walking their dogs and children or just outside enjoying the sun. However, they soon reminded me of the distracted city pedestrians I had read about, and I wondered if they had left the pavements and invaded the countryside. Because absolutely everyone I could see outside and in the parks, gardens and trails was either talking on their phone, texting, listening to music or taking selfies. For a nervous cyclist, such as myself, this frequently became a little bit hazardous.
Instead of cycling through every village on my route as I normally did without worrying about unclipping my cleats or losing my grip on the handlebars, I had to slow down to a crawl and negotiate past people who were too distracted to hear or see me approach. Every time I got closer to another built up area, I tried a different strategy to warn anyone nearby that I was approaching but it always failed to catch their attention. Even when I rang what is probably the only bell in existence to be actually mounted on a road bike, no one seemed to register the sound with an incoming cyclist. It was as if my bike was a moving smartphone magnet, compelling their users to walk towards me as I approached. Judging by the startled reactions and flying arms that almost careered me more than once into hedges or lakes, clearly no one had expected me to be cycling past them. Certainly the dog walker whose dog had decided to pull their extra-long lead across my wheel at the last minute was not impressed by my sudden interruption to their walk (and my language).
As I got closer to home, I left the villages behind me and I relaxed, knowing that there weren’t too many areas left where I would have to compete with distracted pedestrians for space. I stuck to the cycle paths as the rush hour traffic started to congest the roads with impatient drivers but then I encountered something even more dangerous than a pedestrian with smartphone—a cyclist using one. In the near distance, I could see another cyclist ahead and realised that the cycle paths would soon be filling with many commuters returning from work. But at this moment there was only one to contend with and this cyclist looked pretty experienced. At least that’s what I assumed, based on the fact that they were cycling with one hand, which I certainly couldn’t do for any length of time. However, on getting a bit closer I realised that they were only cycling with one hand because they were smoking. I could see that they went back to the standard two hands stance after they flicked the remains of the fag into a bush and pedalled on.
Now getting closer still, I considered whether I should try to pass them or not as they seemed to fill the width of the wide path by wavering left and right. I prepared myself, sped up slightly and rang a warning bell and added a ‘On your right’ after I didn’t sense a flicker of a reaction. But somehow this only seemed to pull them over to the right as well. I had to quickly brake to avoid ploughing into them but managed to keep control. I slowed behind the cyclist and decided to try again thinking that I must not have been loud enough. So I rang my bell and tried a ‘ON YOUR LEFT!’ but now they almost instinctively wavered to the left and blocked me, forcing me to brake suddenly, again. ‘Are you kidding me?!’, I thought. How could they possibly not see that I was trying to pass them. It felt like I was playing a crazy version of the childhood game, British Bulldog, on bikes. I thought I would give it one last go before having to resign myself to following them in their wobbly wake for the next 5km but this time I was really going to go all out.
I geared myself up, rang my bell at full ping, shouted ‘ON YOUR RIGHT!!!!!’ and attempted to cycle by like a bullet. This time the cyclist started to waver again towards the right but then finally pulled back as I levelled with them. Passing them at last, I looked at them with the unmistakable face of ‘Why didn’t you hear me?!’. However, I was met with the startled expression of a zoned-out cyclist wearing headphones and listening to their iPhone who was completely shocked to see me. With them soon safely in the distance, I carried on home without incident but I wondered if the distracted cyclist had had the sense to turn down the volume of their music.
As my cycling training continues in the coming weeks while the weather is improving, I know that there will be many more distracted people outside using their smartphones. I can only hope that I get better at cycling and more skilful at manoeuvring around people, dogs and other cyclists. Because if the use of smartphones apps in our daily lives is only going to further increase in the future, then the potential for mishaps will inevitably multiply. So like Sydney’s in-ground traffic lights, it seems that we will still have to come up with more innovative solutions to keep us safe while benefitting from new smartphone technology. I wonder how long before they make an app for that..?
Now for a recipe that reflects the better weather and includes some apples. Use your favourite apples in this recipe for Apple slaw to make the perfect addition to any meal, picnic or BBQ.