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Smartphone-linked traffic lights helping guide visually impaired in Japan

Visually impaired people are seen crossing the road while listening to auditory guidance from smartphones, in the city of Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, on Nov. 9, 2020. (Mainichi/Naritake Machida)

TOKYO -- Special traffic lights with a system that notifies visually impaired people what signal is currently being shown through auditory guidance on their smartphones are gradually being set up across Japan.

    The National Police Agency (NPA) aims to implement the system nationwide to reduce visually impaired pedestrians' concerns. Their efforts to make travel across intersections safer are gathering attention.

    The traffic lights employ advanced Pedestrian Information and Communication Systems (PICS), which use radio communication equipment attached to traffic light poles to issue auditory guidance on smartphones that informs pedestrians of the color of traffic signals.

    On Nov. 9, visually impaired individuals went on a walk in the Chiba Prefecture city of Yotsukaido, east of Tokyo. As they neared an intersection, audio from their smartphones informed them of their current location -- "intersection before the Yotsukaido Fire Station." When the pedestrian crossing light turned green, the audio told them "traffic lights in the direction of Chuo Park and Yotsukaido Elementary School are green," and members of the group began crossing the road while carrying white canes in their right hands and smartphones in their left.

    The pedestrians had installed free smartphone app "ShinGO!" by Tokyo-based traffic light manufacturer Nippon Signal Co. The app also includes a vibrating alert function that accompanies the auditory guidance, as well as a feature that enables users to extend the period that a traffic light stays green for.

    As part of previous attempts to assist visually impaired people when crossing roads, police have implemented traffic signal devices that produce chirping or cuckoo sounds, as well as nursery rhyme melodies that play when the lights go green. As of the end of March there were 20,301 pedestrian lights with these features. In all, 11.7% of Japan's around 208,000 traffic lights are auditory traffic signals, a classification which includes systems that can detect stickers on white canes and inform individuals of the color of traffic lights through sound.

    But, there have been cases of nearby residents filing complaints about traffic signals producing sound when they turn green in the nights and early mornings. As a result, only about 10% of auditory traffic signals operate all day. In a 2018 traffic accident in Tokyo in which a visually impaired person was fatally run over by a car at a pedestrian crossing, an auditory traffic signal device was in place, but had not been producing sound at the time of the accident.

    About 20 years ago, the NPA set about adopting a system that enabled pedestrians to use designated handheld devices to issue commands for emitting sound. However, uptake of the prescribed devices was not high, and only around 430 of the products remain in existence.

    Under these circumstances came the new coronavirus pandemic. Amid calls for a change in the way people live, staggered working hours have come into effect at some workplaces. As a result, the NPA decided to speed up the process of setting up barrier-free traffic lights that are not affected by the time of the day, deeming that "it is necessary to also take into consideration new lifestyles followed by visually impaired people."

    As of the end of March, arrangements for advanced PICS had been completed at 74 traffic lights across the three prefectures of Miyagi, Shizuoka, and Chiba, and operations have been starting gradually since April. About 60 more traffic lights with the system are set to be implemented during fiscal 2020 including in Saitama and Fukuoka prefectures,.

    With a focus on urban areas, the NPA hopes to drastically increase the number of traffic lights with the system to 2,000 during fiscal 2021, and it has requested expenses of 2.56 billion yen (roughly $24.6 million) in its budget allocations for the period. The NPA also hopes to see concentrations of traffic lights with advanced PICS in the same area, so that they can be of convenience to visually impaired users and lead to app services being enhanced by private firms.

    Nine members of the National Council of Visual Disabled in Japan tested the smartphone app on Nov. 9 at the Yotsukaido intersection in Chiba. Among them, Hiroshi Oda, 66, who has severe sight impairment, said, "It is difficult for blind people to work out their location. That the audio will inform users what intersection they've come to is ground breaking, and I think it's extremely helpful for people who usually use this road."

    Kanji Yamashiro, 64, who is representative director of the national council and has severe amblyopia, navigates space including roads and sidewalks by listening to the sounds around him, and relies on yellow studded blocks on pavements as well as height differences at curbs when crossing roads; he described sound as a "lifeline" for visually impaired pedestrians.

    Yamashiro said it is easy for him to get a sense of direction based on the sound coming from traffic light systems which emit alternate chirping and cuckoo sounds from two devices set up at either side of a pedestrian crossing. However, advanced PICS systems don't allow users to navigate their direction based on the location of sounds, as the audio guidance comes from smartphones. Yamashiro expressed concern, saying, "If I accidentally crossed the wrong way, it would lead to an accident."

    Masaki Sudo, 61, chairperson for the Shizuoka prefectural association of visually impaired individuals, tried out the system on a different day. He praised the advanced PICS to a certain degree, while also pointing out that users need to put on earphones shortly before reaching an intersection, as the auditory guidance from smartphones is difficult to make out. He said, "It increases the number of tasks that need to be done at once. I'll have to differentiate between the sounds of traffic while also finding my way around with my white cane. I cannot get the hang of this app unless a session for practicing its usage is held."

    Some have voiced strong approval for the advanced PICS while also expressing a preference for increases in 24-hour operations of standard auditory traffic signals. Munemasa Sasaki, 71, section head of the Japan Federation of the Visually Impaired, estimated that about 20 to 30% of visually impaired people use smartphones, and added, "It is difficult to locate buttons on modern smartphones. I'd like to see a barrier-free smartphone developed."

    (Japanese original by Naritake Machida, City News Department)

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