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 Honolulu allows police officers to fine pedestrians between $15 and $99 for staring at their phone while crossing a street.
“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 Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell at a press conference at the time.
The town of Montclair, California, 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."
Farther north in Ontario, under the proposed “Phones Down, Heads Up Act," pedestrians can be fined if caught crossing the road while holding and using a phone or any other type of communication device. Fines start at $50 for the first offense. The bill, nicknamed the "zombie law," passed in March 2018.
Many other cities have made proposals to ban earbuds for both pedestrians and bicyclists, though not many have succeeded, and no U.S. state has passed a law banning distracted walking.
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% increase over 2015.
The problem isn't new, nor is it restricted to fatalities. An 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.
In fact, researchers recently compared texting to other pedestrian distractions. They found that texting resulting in a higher rate of incidents and close calls than failure to look right or left when crossing. By comparison, talking on the phone resulted in only a slight increase of mishaps and listening to music had no effect on safety. The results were published in the journal Injury Prevention.
But 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.