Targeting ‘Cell Phone Zombies’: Cities Take Measures Against Distracted Walking

Texting and walking can provide some light laughs on social media or even in real life: bumping into things, tripping over planters and plunging into a water feature, etc. But for some, there have been serious, life-changing, and even fatal consequences of what’s been coined as  “distracted walking.”

Pedestrian deaths in Los Angeles have reportedly surged 80% in the past two years despite Mayor Eric Garcetti’s program, Vision Zero, which hoped to reduce traffic deaths on city streets by 2025. Though pedestrians were only involved in 8% of traffic collisions between 2012-2016, they accounted for 44% of deaths in that time.

In 2016, there was a 9% increase from 2015 in pedestrian fatalities nationwide; at 5,987, it  was the highest number since 1990. Sadly, the fifth leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 19 is unintentional pedestrian injury.  Though the data did not track incidents involving distracted pedestrians, safety experts suspect cell phone usage correlates with the increase.

With the prevalence of cell phone use, distracted walking has become a real issue that city officials and lawmakers are taking seriously. Back in 2012, a New Jersey municipality banned texting and walking; violators are fined at $85 a ticket. In October 2017, Honolulu, HI was the first major city to pass legislation concerning distracted walking. Fines can range from $15-$99, depending on whether the individual is a first-time offender or not.  

Distracted Walking Citations Come to SoCal

Just a couple of days ago, Montclair, a small city east of Pacoima, enacted a law making distracted walking a ticketable offense. Pedestrians cannot text, talk, listen to music or podcasts with two earbuds in when in a crosswalk. The only exception to this and similar ordinances by other cities are 911 calls.  For the next 5 months, the city will ease into the law by giving first-time offenders a warning. Tickets will be issued starting in August, for which the penalty is $100.

City officials have been increasingly concerned in recent years with more accidents involving pedestrians and cellphone use. One tragically notable case occurred in 2012, when 15-year-old Yessica Gonzalez was walking to Montclair High School one morning. She stepped into a marked crosswalk and was hit by an oncoming vehicle. Injuries left her hemiplegic and severely brain damaged, with the mental capacity of a toddler. City officials say she had both earbuds in while on her phone. 

Montclair has also launched a distracted walking public awareness campaign in schools, but is also planning on implementing some active reminders throughout crosswalks. Painted stencils on every crosswalk corner will be designed to catch the eye of someone looking down at their phone. Additionally, decals have already appeared at signalized intersections with a warning, “Don’t be distracted,” and a no-cellphone symbol.

Will the New Laws Work?

While many recognize there is a real problem with distracted walking and aren’t against promoting safety, critics are uncertain that laws like these will likely make much of a difference. Furthermore, some are concerned that these laws infringe on personal freedom. Advocates contend that because they’re law(s) that can potentially save lives, people will agree to put public safety first.

Rexburg, Idaho has seen positive changes since they adopted theircitywide ban in 2011. After seeing five pedestrian deaths in a short period of time, Rexburg banned pedestrians from using hand-held devices, except while talking, when crossing public streets. They haven’t had one pedestrian fatality since.  

Janette Sadik-Khan feels that laws prohibiting texting and walking are not effective, but that addressing road design and driver behavior are the key to safer roads for pedestrians. Sadik-Khan is a former commissioner of the NYC Department of Transportation and now transportation principal at Bloomberg Associates. She indicates that there isn’t enough research to prove that these texting/walking laws work, and that it’s an “easy way out.”  She prefers other strategies backed by sound analysis, including vehicle speed reduction.

Deborah A. P. Hersman, president and chief executive of the National Safety Council also points out that vehicle design is also an option. Softer bumpers and modifications on the front ends of vehicles can reduce the severity of a pedestrian impact, but as of 2015, only 44 countries in the world implemented these designs in their cars.

In the U.S., 10 other states have had similar legislation on the table against distracted walking, but has yet to pass. Two states are pending legislation, while New York is making efforts with an educational approach instead.

Howard Blau Law will keep you posted on new developments on legislation for distracted pedestrians.

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Check Out These References for Further Reading:

“More Walkers Die in Traffic: Pedestrian Deaths Surge Over 80% in Two Years Despite L.A. Mayor’s Initiative.” L.A. Times. Retrieved 28 February 2018.

“Take Steps to Avoid Injury While Walking.” National Safety Council.  Retrieved 27 February 2018.

“Pedestrian Safety.” Retrieved 27 February 2018.

“In this Pomona Valley city, it’s now illegal to cross the street while on the phone.” LA Times. Retrieved 27 February 2018.

“Honolulu targets ‘smartphone zombies’ with crosswalk ban.” Reuters. Retrieved 27 Febraury 2018.

“This Causes 11,000 Injuries Every Year and You’re Probably Doing It Every Day.” Reader’s Digest. Retrieved 27 February 2018.

“Reading This While Walking? In Honolulu, it Could Cost You.” NY Times. Retrieved 27 February 2018.