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Android Heads Up feature aims to prevent distracted walking

If you often walk along the street glued to your smartphone, then a new tool from Google is aimed at you. Reportedly coming to Pixel phones first, the “Heads Up” feature for Android prompts you to stay aware of your surroundings if it detects you’re using your handset while walking.

Despite the obvious dangers, distracted walking has been a serious problem ever since the arrival of the smartphone nearly 15 years ago. Every year, thousands of pedestrians are killed on roads in the U.S., a portion of these fatalities involving folks looking down at their screen while stepping onto the street.

The Heads Up feature was spotted in code in Google’s Digital Wellbeing app toward the end of last year, but this week some users have started to report the feature working on their phones.

A screenshot showing the setup page for Heads Up says, “Watch your step with Heads Up. If you’re walking while using your phone, get a reminder to focus on what’s around you.”

It adds, “Use with caution. Heads Up doesn’t replace paying attention.”

Digital Wellbeing add "Heads Up", a feature that warns you to stop using your phone while you're walking. @xdadevelopers @thetymonbay @XDA_Forum_Admin @thetymonbay

— Jay Prakash Kamat (@jay__kamat) April 11, 2021

You can configure the feature in settings to allow for things like physical exercise, or you can turn it off altogether.

Pop-up messages that you might see while using your phone in motion include “Be careful,” “Look ahead,” “Stay focused,” “Stay alert,” and “Watch your step,” among others.

The feature appears to be in beta as part of a controlled rollout, but the fact that it’s starting to appear for some users means it could launch more widely in the coming weeks or months.

There are numerous stories of people getting caught up in accidents involving distracted walking, and it doesn’t always involve traffic. People have also been known to stumble into canals, walk off piers, and fall into manholes while using their phones.

In 2017, officials in Honolulu deemed the issue so serious that it became the first major U.S. city to pass legislation imposing a smartphone ban when using crosswalks. Other cities have embedded flashing lights on sidewalks to warn those lost in their phones to look up before stepping into the road.

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Trevor Mogg
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