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Officials Keep Trying, and Failing, to Outlaw Distracted Walking

A proposed bill in Hawaii is the latest in a doomed line of legislative attempts to deal with pedestrians on their cell phones.

Lori Foxworth/Flickr

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who’d say that texting and walking mix well.

New York’s (sadly fictitious) Department of Pedestrian Etiquette listed “walking with your face in a map or mobile device,” among its violations. Beyond the annoyance factor, it’s a health risk: 2010 data show that at least 1,500 people a year wound up in the emergency room after taking to the streets on their phones. The Pew Research Center has found that 53 percent of adult cell phone users have bumped into something as a result of distracted walking. And if you still don’t see the hazard, consider the La Crescenta, California, man who nearly texted himself straight into a bear.

Yet people keep doing it. And when common sense fails, the law steps in. Or, at least, tries to.

A bill introduced in the Hawaii House of Representatives at the end of January would ban pedestrians from crossing a street, road, or highway while using a mobile electronic device. The House Committee on Transportation deferred the bill on Wednesday, bringing to mind a similar ban proposed by the Honolulu City Council in 2011, which never reached approval.  

Legislative attempts to curtail pedestrian cellphone use do not have very successful track record. Carl Kruger, a former state senator from New York, introduced a proposal in 2007 that would have barred the use of electronics in intersections at the risk of a $100 fine. “Government has an obligation to protect its citizenry,” he said. The bill failed.

Similarly, a 2011 Arkansas proposal to outlaw wearing headphones in both ears while walking went nowhere. (Studies have shown that, relative to texting, music isn’t even that great of a distraction.) Jimmy Jeffres, the senator behind the bill, knew it wouldn’t pass but introduced it anyway to raise awareness of the issue. "You might not get the full effect of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with one ear,” he told the Associated Press, “but you at least will be aware of your surroundings."

Those lackluster outcomes didn’t stop the Utah Transit Authority from trying to slap a $50 fee on pedestrians using their phones, headphones, and other devices while crossing Salt Lake City’s light rail tracks in 2012. But the ordinance never became statewide law. Craig Frank, a Republican representative who opposed the bill, said at the time: “I never thought the government needed to cite me for using my cellphone in a reasonable manner.”

(AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Distracted driving laws have had a considerably easier time making it through the legislature; 46 states ban texting and 14 ban hand-held phone use entirely. But attempts to monitor how people conduct themselves while walking (or, for that matter, riding a bike) frustrate safety advocates who view pedestrians and cyclists as the most vulnerable city street users. Numerous states have proposed public awareness campaigns to direct pedestrian attention away from their phone screens and back toward their livelihoods; California’s 2014 campaign implores: “Stay Alert. Stay Alive.”

Some researchers have become doubtful that such campaigns can work. Corey Basch of William Patterson University, co-author of a recent report on pedestrian distractedness at five Manhattan intersection, found that “Don’t Walk” signs failed to affect those distracted by their devices; nearly half of observed walkers who crossed against the light were looking at their phones, putting them at a greater risk, she said, than those who were paying attention to their surroundings.

Consequently, she’s not sure pedestrians would heed—let alone notice—additional signage encouraging them to watch out for themselves. “The urgency to always be in touch and the fear of missing out on something has grown so strong I'm not even sure they're aware of how dangerous it is," Basch told

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