Law Proposed for Ontario, Canada, to Ban "Distracted Walking"

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A white woman looking at her phone while she crosses the street.

Westend61 / Getty Images

All these laws imply that the pedestrian has "shared responsibility." In fact, they have the right of way.

Honolulu did it. New Jersey tried to do it. Now, in Ontario, Canada, the "Phones Down, Heads Up Act" has been proposed, to make it illegal to cross the street while using a phone.

The bill was proposed by a suburban Toronto member of Provincial Parliament, Yvan Baker, who tells the Star that he wasn't downplaying the dangers posed by drivers using phones.

But what I am saying is that a component of the problem we face is that some people when they cross the road are distracted. And experts tell us that’s a risky behaviour, and experts tell us we should take steps to address that. And that’s what this bill is meant to do.

When challenged about the bill on the CBC radio, Baker fell back on the "if it saves only one life" argument, then it is worth it. But it is not so simple; this is an issue that we have been covering on TreeHugger and sister site for a long time. In fact it seemed like some of the coverage of the issue in Toronto was lifted straight out of TreeHugger without credit, but I won't go there today. And I will also say that I am not in favour of people walking while looking at their phones; it's not the smartest thing to do. But it is not a serious problem that deserves all this attention.

Whenever I write about this subject, there are dozens of comments saying that I am wrong, that people are walking across the street distracted, and that it is a big problem. In Ontario, they throw out a statistic that 13 percent of pedestrians killed while crossing the street are distracted, and that's a big number that should be dealt with.

But over half of the people in that 13 percent are over 55 or under 14, not demographics known for their mad texting. And nowhere in the source of that statistic do they say that they are only distracted by phones; I personally am distracted by looking up at buildings, and by using my phone to take photographs of traffic and bikes (illegal in the Honolulu law, but not in Ontario). Lots of people are distracted when crossing the street.

That's the nub - -they have the right of way. The only issues about using the phone is that a) it is slowing them down, which aggravates drivers, or b) the theory that by being alert and looking ahead and not compromised by looking at the phone, they might be able to watch out for drivers and avoid being hit. Or as Matt Elliot puts it in Metro, "I guess a bit of extra attention might allow you to pull a sweet backflip to avoid a car, but acrobat training should not be a requirement for safe passage on Toronto streets."

A lot of citizens can't do sweet backflips. Sixty percent of the people dying in the roads are seniors, even though they are only 14 percent of the population. Most older citizens with the right of way crossing the road are compromised; they have lousy eyesight and poor peripheral vision, they don't hear as well, they often are looking down for trip hazards, they don't walk as fast. They depend on the law to protect them, to ensure that drivers obey the rules and not run them down. This is why I have written:

Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old

An old person crossing the road using a walker.

Joaquin Corbalan / EyeEm / Getty Images

There are all kinds of distracted and compromised people in our roads. Some of them cannot help it.

Because while everybody is complaining about young people compromising their hearing and vision with smartphones, the fact is that a huge and growing proportion of our population is compromised by age. Drivers should be driving on the assumption the person in the road is not looking or seeing them, because they might not be able to.

In Spacing, Dylan Reid makes much the same argument with greater logic, noting that the pedestrian is either breaking the law by crossing against a light, or has the right of way: "In this case, the pedestrian has the right to cross under any and all circumstances, and it’s up to drivers not to hit them. If there is a collision, it is clearly the driver’s responsibility. It doesn’t matter what the pedestrian was or was not doing." He then picks up on my argument about being compromised:

Of course the pedestrian should pay attention, because there are some aggressive or irresponsible drivers who might endanger them, and it’s smart to do everything possible to avoid getting hit. But it’s not up to the pedestrian, it’s up to the driver to avoid a collision. What these laws specifically ignore is that some pedestrians cannot look out for bad drivers when crossing with the right of way. People who are visually impaired and walk with a cane or a guide dog cannot “watch out” for bad drivers. They have to rely on the law that says that drivers have to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way.

He concludes:

“Distracted walking” laws like this one create the impression that pedestrians somehow share responsibility with drivers if they are hit while crossing with the right of way. They do not — the responsibility lies solely with the driver, and the laws needs to reflect that fact.

That's why Yvan Baker's playing the "if it saves one life..." card is so frustrating. If the current existing laws against speeding, running red lights and distracted driving were really enforced, if people lost their licences and paid serious fines every single time, it would save a lot more than one life. We hear this phrase most often in the bike helmet law arguments, where people who don't ride bikes want to impose their will on somebody else, because "if it saves one life." Here, it is just another guy from Rob Ford country who drives, attacking those who walk. So what else is new?

I have written so much about this on TreeHugger and MNN, where I cover boomer angst. Here is a roundup. I apologize if it gets repetitive.

Let's not criminalize walking and texting. (We have bigger problems)

A young woman holding an umbrella crosses the road looking at her phone.

StefaNikolic / Getty Images

Seriously, in New York City alone last year, half a dozen pedestrians were killed while they were walking on the sidewalk — yet people want to criminalize pedestrians for looking at their phones, when we should be doing everything we can to get more people walking, instead of scaring them off the streets.

Data show that distracted walking is a non-issue and isn't growing

A young black woman crosses the street looking at phone in New York City.

Westend61 / Getty Images

We are entering an era of demographic change, with the population bulges of millennials who are driving less and walking more, but more critically, a lot more boomers and older people are going to be in the streets. Many of us in some way have issues that might keep us from being able to commit one hundred percent of our attention to crossing the road as fast as possible. But it's hard to ban getting old.

Spending so much time criticizing the occasional texter is misses the bigger picture: the people in the big metal boxes have a responsibility to respect the rights of everyone to get safely across the street at their own pace, whether young, old, small, handicapped or texting.

Why are so many pedestrians getting killed in our roads?

An elderly woman using a walker and assistant crossing a road with a car.

Toa55 / Getty Images

It’s not the kids looking at their phones who are getting killed; it is the older people who are much slower getting across the road, and who tend to die at a far higher rate when they are hit. Or as Brad Aaron of Streetsblog noted,

If your transport system has zero tolerance for anyone who isn’t a fit adult, the system is the problem, and ... By casting blame elsewhere you assume everyone is like you — can see, hear, walk perfectly. Arrogant & extremely unhelpful.

Should "distracted walking" be banned?

A young Black woman crosses the road looking at her phone.

South_agency / Getty Images

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.

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.

No, distracted walking is not causing the dramatic increase in pedestrian deaths

This is an urban design issue. Our roads are deadly by design. They are almost impossible for people to cross safely. They are designed specifically to let cars drive fast.

This is an automobile design issue. The dramatic increase in the sale of SUV and pickup trucks makes the crashes three times as deadly, a fact that is almost never mentioned in these discussions. We have to make SUVs and light trucks as safe as cars or get rid of them.

This is a demographic issue. The older you are, the more likely you are to die in a crash. There are more older people around (especially trying to cross those roads in Florida) and so there are going to be more deaths. As the baby boomers push into their seventies, this is seriously going to spike.

The use of smart phones by pedestrians is a non-issue, a rounding error and an excuse for happy motoring.

Honolulu bans pedestrians from “distracted walking”

Crosswalk and street signs in Hawaii.

Mirnet / Getty Images

TreeHugger totally agrees that one should not use a phone while crossing the street. We also suggest that you don’t get old, have a disability that might slow you down, don’t go out at night, don’t be poor and don’t live in the suburbs, all of which contribute to people who walk being killed by people who drive. This bylaw willfully ignores the real reasons pedestrians are getting killed, and instead is just more victim blaming.