Traffic signs alert Swedes to smartphone "obsession"

3:57 min

After a close brush with a bike while walking down the street staring at his smartphone, an ad creative in Stockholm decided to put up mock traffic signs alerting city dwellers to society's growing phone fixation.

It’s a common sight today: As you walk down the street or ride the metro, you’re likely to see people around you glued to their phones.

"It's a phenomenon that most people have started paying attention to: we seem to be addicted to our phones and it's almost a reflex, reaching for it as soon as we have a free moment,” ad creative and Stockholm resident Emil Tiisman tells Radio Sweden.

“So much so that we're even staring down at our phones as we're walking down the street and then suddenly you bump into somebody or you walk out into passing traffic," Tiisman adds.

That is precisely what happened to Tiisman's business partner, Jacob Sempler. He was looking at his smartphone one day while strolling down street and ended up walking straight into the bike lane. Sempler almost got run over.

"That made him think, 'there really should be a sign for idiots like myself' and that's how the idea came about," Tiisman says, laughing.

Sempler enlisted Tiisman in his project and together they created three traffic signs that they attached to existing poles on three different pedestrian streets in central Stockholm. Triangular and yellow with red borders, at first sight they look just like regular warning signs, but they also feature a silhouetted man and woman staring down at their phones.

Standing by one of the three mock traffic signs, in the upscale district of Östermalm, Tiisman says most people around him don't seem to notice the sign - because they're too busy looking at their phones. Many of those who do notice stop to take a picture - using their smartphones.

“For us it was a way of getting people talking about something that I think is already on our minds,” Tiisman says, explaining why he and Sempler created the signs. But because they look so similar to regular traffic signs, they could also confuse people. So, are they legal?

“I'm pretty sure it’s not legal, but at the same time they’re attached to existing poles so they're not difficult to remove. So, that's how I sleep at night,” says Tiisman.

As of Tuesday afternoon, all the signs were still intact but the Transport Administration has been in touch with Tiisman, he says. “They didn’t seem to be against the signs, but said they'll probably come down eventually.”

Police in the hip Södermalm district seemed amused by the initiative, and posted a picture of the sign on social media:

Tiisman thinks the signs are a good “conversation starter”, but doubts they will do much to quell our growing desire always to be connected and engaged with our smartphones.

“I don't think they're such a big deal,” Tiisman says of the signs, “but it's fun to get people talking about things we can all relate to and this is one of those things. And beyond the safety question, I think there’s also a bigger question here of how much time we spend on our phones. Are we even able to disconnect today? I know I have a hard time doing so."