Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Elderly pedestrians die at a higher rate in Honolulu than anywhere else. Their cellphones aren’t the issue.
Congratulations, Honolulu, for battling a surge in pedestrian deaths by punishing prospective victims.
Starting in October, pedestrians who text or check their phones while crossing the streets of the Hawaiian capital will be liable for a $35 fine. That rises to $75 for a second offense and $99 for a third.
Signing a bill into law on Friday, Mayor Kirk Caldwell cited Honolulu’s “unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county.”
Nationwide, the number of pedestrians killed in traffic has been climbing year over year, with an 11 percent spike in 2016. The crisis has been met with a raft of misguided interventions on pedestrian behavior. Los Angeles and New York City have cracked down on jaywalking. New Jersey, Nevada, New York and Arkansas have all considered fines and jail time to punish “distracted walking.”
Honolulu is the first major city to enact such a law, which is unlikely to save any lives. For while distracted walking has made for entertaining, Darwin Awards-esque local news coverage in recent years, its case as a verifiable public safety issue is not so strong.
True, the Pew Research Center has found that 53 percent of adult cell phone users have bumped into something from the screen-related distraction. One 2013 study found “distracted walking” was responsible for 1,500 hospitalizations nationwide.
But cellphones are not a unique threat to roadside walking. The same 2013 study found that injuries related to cellphone use track quite neatly between pedestrians and drivers. More recent research shows that more than half of distracted walking incidents happen at home—“not adjacent to roadways, as many may believe.”
Pedestrians can obviously insert themselves into dangerous situations by ignoring signals and walking into traffic—and they share responsibility in plenty of crashes. Using a cell phone while crossing the street can be a hazard, sure. Inherently dangerous to others, however, it is not.
Driving is. So are many of the streets designed to support it. And using a phone in the driver’s seat dramatically increases the chance of a crash. As the economy recovers, more cars are on the road, driving more miles—which translates to that many more people texting and chatting while navigating their two-ton steel boxes. The recent rash of pedestrian fatalities is not all that surprising.
Mayor Caldwell is correct that Honolulu has an unusually high rate of pedestrian deaths among its senior citizens. Between 2005 and 2014, some 42 percent of pedestrians killed in car crashes in the state were over the age of 65—roughly double the national average. Most of these accidents are concentrated in the Honolulu metro.
The city’s overall rate of pedestrian deaths is on par with the national average; so is the state’s. Elderly folks also have a harder time recovering from traumatic injuries, and Hawaii’s 65-plus-set are considerably more active than their mainland counterparts. Older Honolulans die on the streets at a high rate not because they’re consumed by their cell phones, but, largely, because there are more of them navigating car-centric roads.
Given that Honolulu’s pedestrian safety problem centers on the elderly, the crosswalk texting law is doubly odd. If “distracted walking” is, in fact, a social scourge worth paying attention, young people would seem to be its likeliest victims.
Indeed, it was Honolulu’s youth, not its elderly, that supposedly sparked the idea for a distracted walking law. City councilmember Brandon Elefante said he thought it up after talking to some teenagers who were concerned for the safety of their cellphone-glued peers.
What would protect teenagers, seniors, and the general walking public from getting killed by cars in Hawaii and the other 49 states? Engineering safer roads, enforcing traffic laws that actually put people in danger, expanding transit options, and encouraging walking—not discouraging it with a regressive fine. When it comes to pedestrians, there’s safety in numbers. Too bad Honolulu sees tickets.