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Smartphone-linked traffic lights for the visually impaired installed in Japan's Fukuoka

Visually impaired people are seen crossing a street while listening to the voice of a smartphone app connected to the traffic signal in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward, on March 19, 2021. (Mainichi/Osamu Sukagawa)

FUKUOKA -- This southwest Japan prefecture has installed its first traffic signals that relay the light's color and other information to visually impaired pedestrians via a smartphone app.

    The number of these special signals has been rising slowly but steadily across Japan. And on March 19, some smartphone-wielding blind or visually impaired people were gathered at the crossing in front of Fukuoka Prefectural Police headquarters in Fukuoka's Hakata Ward for an information session and demonstration.

    Though more than 24,000 audible traffic signals -- which emit sounds to let people with poor vision know when the light is green -- have been installed nationwide, more than 80% of them are disabled at night due to noise complaints from neighbors and other reasons, Mainichi Shimbun reporting has revealed. The new app-based system, which works around the clock, is gathering attention as one solution to this problem.

    The new function, called the "pedestrian information and communication system," is being added to audible traffic signals. When someone with a dedicated app installed on their phone approaches the new signal, it wirelessly sends the name of the crossing, which direction it's in, and the light's color to the app. The app then tells the user the information in an automated voice, helping them to cross safely.

    According to the National Police Agency, at least 136 such signals had been installed in five prefectures -- Miyagi, Chiba, Shizuoka, Saitama and Fukuoka -- by fiscal 2020, which ends this month, and national funds have been set aside to install about 150 more in big cities in fiscal 2021. In Fukuoka Prefecture, police said that the new signals had started operating on March 12 at four intersections on a road connecting JR Yoshizuka Station and Kyushu University Hospital in the prefectural capital.

    Yumiko Katayama, a 61-year-old visually impaired woman who lives in the city's Higashi Ward and participated in the March 19 information session, said: "Though I want a part of the system to be improved, I think it helps when the audible traffic signal's sound is disabled. I hope it will be added to all traffic lights."

    (Japanese original by Hiroshi Higa, Kyushu News Department)

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