Beware the smartphone zombies blindly wandering around Hong Kong
'Distracted walking', as the experts call it, is a growing annoyance in the MTR and malls and on the streets of Hong Kong. Experience elsewhere shows it can be deadly
The zombies are everywhere. They wander the streets, shopping malls and MTR corridors, heads down and oblivious to the world around them.
For fear of making contact, we sidestep them as they tap on their smart devices playing Candy Crush, messaging friends, watching videos or liking Facebook posts and Instagram photos. They won't eat you, but they might gnaw at your nerves.
More than 80 per cent of Hongkongers between the ages of 15 and 34 own a smartphone, according to research company Ipsos Group, with penetration trailing off to less than a third of the population over 50.
Many of us would rather give up television than our mobile device, one survey found. Smartphone culture has become so deep-rooted that it is has even spawned a Cantonese colloquialism - dai tau juk, or head-down tribe. The tribe's culture is having widespread ramifications.
Local neurosurgeon Dr Harold Cheng Kin-ming warned last month of the excessive pressure head-tilting exerts on the cervical vertebrae - and the number of cases reported by the Health Department is rising.
As well as being a pain in the neck, when we remain absorbed in our phones while on our feet - known as "distracted walking" - it can also be a public nuisance.
"It's annoying and selfish," says Warren Collins, a daily MTR commuter. "It's getting worse and worse, too," says the English teacher, who was recently involved in an altercation on the MTR.
"A guy glued to his phone walked into me, then pushed me in the back because he was p****d off. I ignored the guy. Then he turned around and followed me to wait on the platform. After I got onto the train, he walked into me on purpose," Collins says.
"I pushed him away, and he gave me the finger and told me to f*** off. It was just ridiculous, since it was him that walked into me," he says, adding that his wife tells him to be more careful.
The MTR Corporation has asked commuters to not "just look down at your mobile phone" on escalators, but Collins observes that this advice is widely ignored.
Besides, smartphone zombies also linger at the bottom of escalators to answer messages, walk blindly off trains reading, or halt abruptly in the corridors to check notifications.
A spokesman for the MTR Corp says the company began broadcasting the warning in November 2013, "after we observed that many passengers were using their mobile phones when taking escalators, which raised concerns that they might be paying less attention to their own safety as well as the safety of other passengers".
The spokesman adds that the public have a "vital role to play" in maintaining the railway's safety standards.
"At any given time, a number of different promotional messages are used, and the public announcement about the use of mobile phones when travelling on escalators is one of them." The announcement has since been replaced, but passenger surveys revealed that the mobile-phone caution had been "well-received", the spokesman says.
Collins disagrees. "That's just bulls***. I think we can make our own minds up about that."
The outcomes of distracted walking - ironically captured on other people's smartphones - can be comical, and go viral on social media. In a video posted on YouTube, which has been viewed more than two million times, a man walks along a garden path glued to his phone, while a huge bear ambles towards him. When he finally notices the beast, the man reels back in horror and flees.
Another viral video shows a distracted woman falling into a shopping mall fountain.
Accidents - sometimes lethal - far outweigh the fun factor. Last month in Colorado, the US, a 16-year-old girl absorbed in a device was hit by a train while walking along a railway track.
In 2013, a Taiwanese tourist in Melbourne fell off a pier while checking Facebook updates and almost drowned. She was plucked from the water still clutching tightly onto her phone.
This attention deficit has grabbed the attention of authorities around the world. On the mainland, a lane on a Chongqing pavement has been reserved for smartphone users. It was, however, meant as a light-hearted reminder about the potential dangers.
Britain has experimented with fixing shock-absorbing pads to lamp posts and bollards to protect pedestrians whose minds are elsewhere.
But the greatest danger is when pedestrians are engaged in devices while crossing roads. Taiwan is reportedly considering fining people caught doing it. In America, the states of Utah and New Jersey have experimented with fines, and some cities are considering legislation.
In Hong Kong, although use of hand-held devices while driving was banned in 2001, a Transport Department spokesman says it doesn't see a need to introduce legislation targeting pedestrians. This is already covered in Section 48 of the Road Traffic Ordinance, which states that a pedestrian who, while crossing a road, negligently endangers his own safety or that of others is committing an offence.
"A pedestrian using a mobile phone while crossing a road heedless of the traffic conditions may contravene this section," the spokesman says.
The latest department statistics show there were 3,694 pedestrian casualties in 2013, and 18 deaths, although accident numbers have fallen in recent years. The department doesn't provide a breakdown for the cause of accidents.
The Road Safety Council lists "inattentiveness" as one of the five most common causes of road accidents among pedestrians, but does not single out smartphone use.
Neither the council nor the police keep figures for traffic accidents caused by people walking while looking down at their mobiles, a spokesman says.
"The council has not received any complaints about people causing a public nuisance by staring at their phones while walking," he adds.
The council has, however, produced a public safety broadcast, which began airing on terrestrial television networks in January, reminding pedestrians to remain alert to traffic, rather than their phones, while crossing roads.
Entrepreneur and motorist Jonathan Fong says he notices people eyeballing their phones on the road "all the time" when he's driving. "I see a lot of office ladies, for example, crossing the road to the office, and they're still watching their Korean dramas, or whatever, on their phones. And it's dangerous, especially when they have the headset on," he says.
He understands how easy it is to be distracted by notifications, though, and admits he has walked into the glass door of his office checking an alert from his phone. His wife has twisted her ankle messaging while walking on an uneven pavement.
"I've actually seen someone tumbling down an escalator. Luckily, it didn't seem like a serious injury," Fong adds.
Ironically, some people believe they can lay the blame on others if they are injured while fiddling with their phone.
A Hong Kong video that has been shared more than 25,000 times on Facebook shows a casually dressed man lingering on a road near the exit of a car park, appearing to be engrossed in his mobile.
Watch: Viral video of man staging fake car accident on Hong Kong street
As a car pulls out and stops, he looks up briefly, before carefully lowering himself onto the road, pretending to have been hit by the vehicle.
The driver then gets out, filming the "victim", who is lying on the road still staring at his mobile. When he sees the driver, he abruptly plays dead. Next, a witness shouts out, scolding the man for his pantomime.
Embarrassed, the "victim" gets back on his feet, dusts himself down and walks away. Presumably, he was hoping to con the driver into paying compensation.
Professor Anthony Fung Ying-him, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong's journalism school, says even if it had been a real accident, a local court is unlikely to have shown any sympathy.
Fung, whose research interests include new media, does not think fines for distracted walking would be feasible, however, since we like our personal freedoms in Hong Kong. In any case, "Hong Kong is too densely populated. There may be 100 people crossing the road, so it would be impossible to catch anyone".
He also notes that the head-down phenomena has a positive side: it makes travelling on public transport more peaceful. "People are on the internet, using apps, checking Facebook, so they are not talking," Fung says.