I fully support Ontario MPP Yvan Baker’s recommendation to ban people from looking at their phones while crossing the road even though there is widespread criticism that such legislation is equivalent to blaming pedestrians for being hit by drivers. But both drivers and pedestrians have an equal responsibility to keep our roads safe. If drivers are being fined for distracted driving, then pedestrians should also undergo the same discipline to focus on what’s ahead of them when crossing the road.
Although there is not enough research to measure how dangerous it is to walk while looking at a phone or other device, some research suggests that distracted pedestrians put themselves at greater risk. Other analysis says the problem is very small. According to NDP transportation critic Cheri DiNovo, most of the pedestrians that have been killed on the road have been seniors who are not known for talking on their cellphones while walking across the street. But I have seen too many pedestrians – boomers, seniors and millennials alike – looking at their devices and not paying attention to traffic when crossing the road. I have also heard many horror stories how distracted pedestrians accidentally fell into a manhole and seriously hurt themselves because they were not paying attention. A friend’s mother also got killed by a car on a narrow suburban street in the dark while crossing the road.
The Globe and Mail reported that Baker’s recommendation came less than a week after Honolulu enacted a similar law, raising the ire of pedestrian advocates around the world. Baker’s private member’s bill, which is not scheduled for debate until March, generated a lukewarm response from Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca. The minister stressed that people should be cautious when walking, and that doing it while distracted is unwise, but noted that legislation addressing this was not included in a road safety bill recently unveiled by the government.
Baker is proposing fines for crossing the road while using a phone or “electronic entertainment device.” The penalties would start at $50, for a first offence, and rise to $125 by a third offence. Municipalities would be allowed to opt out. The bill would not cover people who have started a phone call before they began crossing the road which I thought is a loophole in itself – why not ask all pedestrians to NOT cross the road if they are already on the phone? The MPP was backed at this recent announcement by the Ontario Safety League and pointed to reports by the provincial coroner and Toronto Public Health that suggested a greater risk for pedestrians who are distracted. In a 2012 report, the coroner stated that approximately 20 percent of pedestrians killed may have had some form of distraction, such as using a cell phone, an MP3 player, a mobile device, pushing a shopping cart, walking a dog, or riding a skateboard.
In 2016, Toronto had its deadliest year for pedestrians in more than a decade. According to a Globe and Mail tally, 46 pedestrians were killed that year and the majority of these victims were 65 and older, in spite of this group representing only 14 percent of the population. In most cases, the driver was deemed at fault. But prevention is always better than cure – Toronto should follow Honolulu’s example before this becomes a real problem.
Honolulu’s law, which has just taken effect, allows the police to fine pedestrians up to U.S.$35 for viewing their electronic devices while crossing streets in the city and surrounding county. Honolulu is the first major city to enact such a ban. According to the City Council member who proposed the bill, pedestrians will share the responsibility for their safety with motorists. In the U.S., pedestrian deaths in 2016 spiked nine percent from the year before, rising to 5,987, the highest toll on American roads since 1990, according to federal data. A report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that one reason may be the sharp rise in smartphone use. Even a lot of people know it’s risky, they still use the time walking to and from meetings and business lunches to catch up on calls, texts and emails. They convince themselves that this text is important.
There is a dearth of data directly linking distracted walking to pedestrian injuries and deaths, but it seems to be a global problem too. According to the World Health Organization’s Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention, preliminary studies gave a hint to unsafe behaviour. People who text and walk, for example, are nearly four times as likely to engage in at least one dangerous action, like jaywalking or not looking both ways, and take 18 percent more time to cross a street than undistracted pedestrians. Other U.S. cities are also taking similar measures. In September, San Mateo County, California, passed a resolution prohibiting pedestrians’ use of cellphones while crossing streets. The resolution is expected to go to the California Legislature for statewide consideration in January. Also in September, New York passed a law that directs New York City to study its efforts to educate the public on the dangers of distracted walking.
The Europeans have the same problem but are taking a different approach. The Globe and Mail reported that Bodegraven, a small town near Amsterdam, embedded LED-illuminated strips in the crosswalk at a busy intersection – right in the sight of people staring at their phones. When the traffic lights turn red or green, so do the lights at ground level, alerting pedestrians when it’s safe to cross. If it’s successful, the town hopes to install the lights at more intersections and on bike lanes, and offer them to other cities.
In Augsburg, Germany, similar lights were installed last year after a teenager using her smartphone was struck and seriously injured by a tram when she walked onto the tracks. Other transportation experts recommended focusing on proven strategies like vehicle speed reduction, which is one of the most effective ways to reduce deaths, as survival rates are higher in low-speed collisions. But this, once again, shifts the responsibilities to drivers, instead of pedestrians.
The strongest opposition to new laws banning pedestrians from using their electronic devices while crossing the road revolves around government overreach and concerns about personal freedom. But I believe that people will eventually understand the value of public safety, and concerns about Big Brotherish intervention will lessen with time. Just look at the laws requiring seat-belt use or restricting smoking initially met resistance but are now widely accepted. The pending Toronto legislation is practical, good common sense and will save lives – it should be approved when it comes up for debate next spring.