Want to see some real distracted walking? Try getting old.

CC BY 2.0 Timara is distracted/ Lloyd Alter

Instead of banning distracted walking, they should ban getting old; it is about as useful and realistic.

This is Timara, a healthy young student. If she crossed the street in Montclair, California or Honolulu Hawaii wearing headphones or looking at her phone she would be charged with distracted walking. But she is not wearing headphones; as part of my class in Sustainable Design at Ryerson University School of Interior design, she is learning how it feels to be old.

Donna Church of Kohler brought all this stuff as part of a discussion of Universal Design. Timara has her ears stuffed with cotton, her elbows and knees velcroed up so that they are harder to move and she has goggles on that reduce her peripheral vision, amount of light and detail of vision. Donna asked if she could see the back of the classroom; Timara responded that she could barely see the front row. Her walking was slow and hesitant.

While I was watching Timara trying to walk, I thought of the recent penalty for distracted walking imposed by Montclair, California. The city notes:

Pedestrians now account for 15 percent of all vehicle-related fatalities and when compared, 2016 experienced a 22 percent increase in pedestrian fatalities from 2014. An estimated 30 percent of pedestrians engage in distracting activities while crossing the street, which include text messaging, phone calls, listening to music, etc.

But what is distracted walking, really? Seriously, we older people are a menace in the crosswalks. As you get older, vision deteriorates as pupil size reduces, focusing is harder, peripheral vision decreases and colour vision deteriorates, while cataracts cloud the picture. A quarter of people over 65 years old have disabling hearing loss. And according to one English study, “the vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing.” As you get older, you walk more slowly and carefully, looking down for trip hazards, congesting the crosswalk and blocking the path of impatient drivers.

Is a kid listening to headphones any more distracted than Timara or me? Or are old people next on their list of people who can’t cross the road? Montclair and Honolulu assume that only people who are fit and capable of jumping out of the way should be in the road. But 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.

The city notes the increase in fatalities between 2014 and 2018, but a lot of things have changed besides the increase in the use of smartphones. The economy improved and gas prices fell, people are driving more, particularly in SUVs and light trucks. But most probably, most importantly, the population has aged.

It should be mandatory that every city councilor anywhere who is considering a ban on distracted walking law should have to dress up like Timara and try and cross the street. They would learn quickly that first, they have to slow down traffic, ban right turns on red lights, increase the time allowed for crossing and stop complaining about the kids with headphones who are perhaps the least distracted demographic in the road. Then I suggest that instead of banning distracted walking, they should ban getting old; it is about as useful and realistic.

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