When crossing a street, it’s always a good idea for pedestrians to watch where they’re going.
But some state legislators now believe police officers should watch where pedestrians are going. As if law enforcement agents didn’t have enough to do already, these lawmakers want to burden them even more by serving as personal nannies to people walking outside.
State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, D-Bronx, and Sen. John Liu, D-Queens, have introduced bills in their respective chambers (A1516/S5746) to penalize individuals for using portable electronic devices while crossing roadways. A first offense would carry a fine of between $25 and $50. A second conviction within 18 months would impose a fine of between $50 and $100, and a third conviction within 18 months would carry a fine of between $50 and $250. A portable electronic device is defined in the bill as “any handheld mobile telephone, personal digital assistant, handheld device with mobile data access, laptop computer, pager, broadband personal communication device, two-way messaging device, electronic game or portable computing device, or any other device used to input, write, send, receive or read text for present or future communication.”
The bill declares that its intention is to protect pedestrians as well as drivers from the consequences of ill-advised behavior. How noble!
“Texting is one of the most common forms of communication with friends,” according to the bill’s justification. “It’s the best way to stay in touch with people outside of social media, but the hard part is when people constantly text even when completing their daily errands. Walking and texting at the same time is most common to do, and it definitely can be dangerous if you aren’t careful. The reason is simple: It takes away your ability to be alert. Over the last few years, smartphones have become a societal norm between teens and adults; statistics of accidents have skyrocketed.”
Distracted walking has come under the radar of both the National Safety Council and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Statistics cited in the legislation show that both injuries and deaths have increased as a result of this growing phenomenon.
However, the bill doesn’t indicate how many pedestrians have been injured or killed in recent years because they were using a portable electronic device while crossing a street. A 2015 article on the website for the National Safety Council documents that 52 percent of “distracted walking incidents involving cellphones happen at home — not adjacent to roadways, as many may believe …” And a 2016 NHTSA report states that while dangers posed to people due to distracted walking have increased, “the extent to which pedestrian safety is affected as a result of distraction among drivers and pedestrians is not well quantified through scientific study.”
The legislation also cites information from the Safe Kids Worldwide organization. The group reports: “Teens account for 50 percent of all pedestrian deaths among kids ages 19 and under. And injuries among older teens are on the rise — an increase of 25 percent over the previous five years.”
But Safe Kids Worldwide claims that distracted walking is a “likely” reason for these statistics, meaning that the group is speculating about such a link. And in documenting that “one in five high school students and one in eight middle school students were observed crossing the street distracted,” the organization defines distracted walking as pedestrians using either a portable electronic device or headphones. The bill doesn’t mention headphones.
The proposed measure makes broad generalizations using data that do not always fit the circumstances it seeks to control. Distracted walking has indeed become a serious concern — and it’s likely a much bigger problem in New York City than in the north country.
But it’s not one that can be eliminated by over-zealous legislation; only common sense on the part of pedestrians and drivers will accomplish that. Lawmakers should distract themselves with more important issues.