Should "distracted walking" be banned?

Sociologist William Ryan started his 1972 book Blaming the Victim with a joke:

Zero Mostel used to do a sketch in which he impersonated a Dixiecrat Senator conducting an investigation of the origins of World War II. At the climax of the sketch, the Senator boomed out, in an excruciating mixture of triumph and suspicion, “What was Pearl Harbour doing in the Pacific?” This is an extreme example of blaming the victim.

I was reminded of this while reading the coverage of a recent poll in Canada, that showed that the majority of Canadians are in support of regulations that ban distracted walking. Not surprisingly, older people are more in favour than young. Since the great majority of Canadian get around by driving, it is also not surprising that the majority want those pesky distracted walkers out of their way, or at least to suffer as much as they do since they cannot text and drive.

insights west© Insights West

The pollster reads these results and tells the CBC “Maybe this is a good starting point to try to figure out whether we have mandatory regulation that makes you stop texting or using your phone before you cross the street.”

However, all the statistics on the number of injuries and deaths attributed to distracted walking show it to be negligible, perhaps 13 percent. Furthermore it hasn't changed in years, even as smart phones proliferate and more people complain about it. The other 87 percent were squished in the usual way. Why is it getting so much attention now? One could paraphrase Zero Mostel and ask: “What were those pedestrians doing in the intersection? Actually walking across the street?”

deleted commentToronto Star/Screen capture

The main argument against so-called “distracted walking” is that well, the people doing it are distracted and not paying as much attention to their surroundings. It’s the same argument used to complain about dark clothing, headphones, hoodies or more recently in Toronto, rubber boots. They are walking more slowly and erratically and might not hear or see a car coming.

The main argument I have against those who would regulate distracted walking is that there are a lot of people, the very young and the old, who cannot be ready to leap out of the way, who walk more slowly and erratically, who do not hear very well. They often are looking down at the pavement for trip hazards instead of straight ahead. They are doing exactly what those accused of distracted walking are doing, and there are going to be more of them every day. Are they going to get banned too?

aging population© UMTRI

And while the data on the dangers of walking while distracted are really suspect, the data on walking while old are not. Picking on distracted walking, which is all the rage, just disguises the fact that our roads are not designed for sharing; they are designed for cars, and walking people are only tolerated if they move really fast and get out of the way. The whole distracted walking thing is just another case of Blaming the Victim, when the real problem is the design of our roads and intersections, and the design of our vehicles as heavy fast moving entertainment centres.

When he wrote the book on Blaming the Victim, Ryan was talking about social problems of the time, but notes:

The generic process of Blaming the Victim is applied to almost every American problem….I have been listening to the victim-blamers and pondering their thought processes for a number of years. The process is often very subtle. Victim-blaming is cloaked in kindness and concern, and bears all the trappings and statistical furbelows of scientism; it is obscured by a perfumed haze of humanitarianism.

But behind that cloak of kindness and concern about the victim, it is in fact all about the driver and the car. The distracted walking laws are an extension of the jaywalking laws of the twenties and thirties, designed by drivers and the industry to get people out of the road so that cars can go fast. As I noted previously, “out of an abundance of kindness and concern, they scare people off the streets and get them to walk quickly and purposefully and not delay (or jump out of the way of) cars. Either that, or they are trying to convince us that the only place you are ever safe is inside a steel cocoon.”

Distracted walking is not a serious issue. People getting killed because they are slow, old, hard of hearing, erratic, short or young is a serious problem. Good luck trying to ban all of them. How about instead, we make the streets safer for everyone instead of going after the kids with phones.

Tags: Canada | Walking

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