Honolulu bans pedestrians from “distracted walking”

greetings from honolulu
via vintage postcard of Honolulu

Honolulu just passed the Distracted Walking Law, which states that "no pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device.” Interestingly, the earlier drafts of the bylaw included restrictions on their use in cars, but that got dropped from the bill, which now just regulates pedestrians. And don’t think about taking a photo either; that’s apparently illegal too.

definition of deviceCity of Honolulu/Public Domain

The Mayor is quoted in the BBC, giving his reasons for signing the bill, emphasis mine:

We hold the unfortunate distinction of being a major city with more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors, than almost any other city in the county. Sometimes I wish there were laws we did not have to pass, that perhaps common sense would prevail, but sometimes we lack common sense.

This is a subject we have covered many times on TreeHugger, and invariably there are dozens of commenters writing that distracted walking is stupid and people looking at their phones while crossing the streets are idiots. I get it. I agree. They complain that I should not be defending distracted walking. I'm not. I am trying to make the case that these rules have nothing to do with protecting pedestrians; they are actually about protecting drivers. They are about exercising control of the roads. That's the real reason for these anti-distracted walking campaigns and now bylaws.

seniors waiting to cross streetThey don't look like they're Snapchatting. (Gary Knight, Flickr)/CC BY 2.0

Note that the mayor’s comment about “more pedestrians being hit in crosswalks, particularly our seniors.” Seniors do not tend to look at phones while crossing streets. However they do often act as if they are distracted, looking for cracks and potholes that might make them fall, going more slowly than young pedestrians. This law does nothing for them. Yet the mayor explicitly mentions them.


It is true that more pedestrians are getting hit by cars and more are dying. I have noted in earlier posts that this is an urban design issue, as our roads are designed to let cars drive fast, not to protect the pedestrians. It’s an automobile design issue, as more people drive deadly SUVs and pickup trucks. It’s a demographic issue, as older people are more likely to die if they are hit. The use of smart phones by pedestrians is a non-issue, a rounding error and an excuse for happy motoring.


As Henry Grabar notes in Slate, the number people dying in cars has increased dramatically too. But there are a lot of people in cars and they have historically controlled the roads. Pedestrians in general are an unwanted distraction that must be controlled and regulated. Grabar writes:

I get why distracted walking is an attractive target. As a largely unsupported trend, it’s a media darling, and it’s kind of funny to see people using phones walk into lakes—especially compared to the banal carnage of car deaths. It also enables city politicians to act like they’re responding to a safety problem without actually cracking down on the people who are doing the killing—drivers… Devices like speed camera and red light cameras, which document and punish dangerous driving, are treated as unacceptable extensions of the surveillance state. But giving the police license to detain anyone crossing the street while looking at a phone? Sure, fine.

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.

Tags: Hawaii | Walking

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