Will Rogers famously wrote, "You can't legislate intelligence and common sense into people." And yet, several cities and states are considering doing just that when it comes to people who walk while texting.
A law passed in 2017 in Honolulu allows police officers to fine pedestrians between $15 and $99 for staring at their phone while crossing a street. The Hawaiian capital is believed to be the first major U.S. city to ban so-called distracted walking (though the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, banned the practice a few years ago).
“This is really milestone legislation that sets the bar high for safety,” Brandon Elefante, the Honolulu City Council member who proposed the bill, told the New York Times.
“We hold the 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,” said Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a press conference.
The town of Montclair, California recently took it one step further and passed a law in January 2018 making it illegal to talk, text or have earbuds plugged into your phone when crossing the street. For first time offenses, people will be given a warning. After that, the fine is $100.
"Unfortunately, many of our children are turning into cellphone zombies," city official Jon Hamilton told KABC. "and while we do hope these drivers operating these machines coming down the road at high speeds are in fact paying attention, many are not."
Stamford, Connecticut, is considering a similar law, and in 2016, a New Jersey assemblywoman proposed a bill that would ban texting while walking and would require pedestrians to use hands-free devices on their phones. “Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road,” Pamela Lampitt told the New York Post.
New York and Arkansas also have attempted to prevent people from walking and texting. In New York, a proposal would have ban pedestrians from using any electronic device while using a crosswalk in a city of more than 1 million residents. Violators would be subject to a $100 fine. Arkansas' proposed law was a bit tougher, banning pedestrians, runners and cyclists from wearing headphones in both ears any time they are on, or near, a road or highway. (Wearing just a single ear bud would be okay.).
Oregon wanted to make it against the law for bicyclists to use cellphones or music players, while a slightly broader bill in Virginia tried to keep cyclists from using any handheld communication device. But so far, no U.S. states have passed a law banning distracted walking.
Farther north in Ontario, under the proposed “Phones Down, Heads Up Act," pedestrians would be fined if caught crossing the road while holding and using a phone or any other type of communication device. Fines would start at $50 for the first offense if the bill, nicknamed the "zombie law," passes in March 2018.
Pedestrian deaths on the rise
This movement to legislate distracted walking has a purpose: Pedestrian fatalities are on the rise. According to the National Safety Council, there were 5,987 pedestrian fatalities in 2016 — the highest number since 1990 and a 9 percent increase over 2015.
The problem isn't new, nor is it restricted to fatalities. A 2008 ABC News report discussed doctors' concerns about the rising number of injuries from distracted texting. "The more people try to multitask and do so many things at once, the more likely we are to see people with injuries from trying to do too much at once," Dr. Mark Melrose told ABC.
Are consumers taking the threat seriously? Critics are concerned about personal freedom; in other words, can the government really tell you where to look when you're walking down the street?
“Sure, people can walk into a risky situation, but that implies that pedestrians are often at fault,” Jonathan Matus, chief executive officer of Zendrive, a company that uses smartphone sensors to track driving behavior, tells Time magazine. “I feel like legislating pedestrian distraction might give aggressive drivers a scapegoat to blame fatalities on the road with, and I’m not excited about that aspect.”
However, as David Canepa, a member of the Board of Supervisors in San Mateo County, California, tells the New York Times: “At the end of the day, people understand the value of public safety. This [type of] legislation is practical and is common sense. It will save lives.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2011.