New Jersey’s new proposal: the Distracted Walking Bill

Envisage the scene.

It is half past eight in the morning. I have spent half an hour in my university’s library, no doubt printing an Amazon-forest worth of documents, and I am now on my way to my internship. This requires a ten minute walk through Belfast, through some busy streets populated with commuters, yawning students and the odd rally driver-esque cyclist. The walk requires me to avoid car drivers sneaking down little alleyways who care not for pedestrians. The walk also requires me to ensure any words not fit for overhearing are muttered under my breath, as I come to the conclusion it must be genetically impossible for the people of Belfast to walk at a decent pace, or in a straight line. (Do you remember the video for Bittersweet Symphony, when The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft walks straight ahead down entire streets? Consider me the 2016 equivalent, sans moody glare and Nineties’ hair.)

Now, I do not mind the early morning walk. I actually enjoy it, because it helps me wake up and there is something soothing about seeing a city come to life in the morning. What does bother me, however, is the modern technological equivalent of the primary school game, ‘heads down, thumbs up’: texting and walking.

I am a member of Generation Y. I grew up using technology which was constantly developed and updated. I watched as mobile phones in particular went from being veritable bricks, to flip phones, to touchscreen smartphones. Just because my generation witnessed the growth of the smartphone and its daily necessity status in our lives does not mean I am willing to overlook those who commit the ultimate sin amongst pedestrians. The amount of times I have had people walk into me, or witnessed others suffering a similar fate of being ruthlessly and mindlessly mown down by those with their gaze firmly affixed downwards is incalculable. Forget the laws of the road. There should be a movement to establish the laws of the street.

Honestly, I have had enough of people who are so devoted to their mobiles that they cannot spare a thought for those around them. This is especially true in the mornings, when we are all just trying to reach our desired destinations in our respective weary states. Blearily we stumble from one road to another, walking for traffic lights to change colour. When we do not have to avoid cars, we have to dodge those with mobiles surgically attached to their hands.

My favourite personal story involves a professionally-garbled lady exiting the local train station, her mobile in one hand and the handle of her ridiculously tiny wheeled suitcase in the other. She promptly walked into me, before sharply enquiring whether I could mind where I was going. The irony was she was asking me this with her gaze firmly on her phone’s screen – although she glanced at me for all of two seconds, just enough time to permit me to think that if she had have been Medusa, I would have turned to stone. I simply sidestepped, letting Madam Wheelie advance forward, whereupon she promptly collided with another person.

Of course, let she who is without sin cast the first stone: I too have on occasion walked with mobile in hand, but more often than not I am reduced to carrying it as it is a sad fact of life that women’s coats suffer the scourge of faux pockets. (But that is a rant for another time.) Otherwise, I make a point of not replying to a text or whatnot until I have reached my destination, and can sit down out of people’s way. This is not me being a sanctimonious so-and-so. This is me being considerate of those who are walking the same streets.

Now, note my words above regarding the establishment of ‘laws of the street’. Apparently I am not alone in this, for a politician in the US state of New Jersey recently introduced a bill which seeks to ban texting whilst walking.

The proposed ‘Distracted Walking Bill’ would seek to ban pedestrians from walking and texting simultaneously. The measure was introduced by New Jersey Assembly Congresswoman Pamela Lampitt, and aims to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths as a result of distraction from mobile phones.

The law would ban people from walking while texting on any form of electronic communication device unless it is totally hands free. Those caught could face fines of up to $50 (£35), 15 days imprisonment, or both- the same penalty as jaywalking.

Assembly Congresswoman Lampitt believes her bill is necessary in terms of accident prevention and also in raising awareness of the dangers of texting whilst walking. She has recently argued that:

“Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road…

“An individual crossing the road distracted by their smartphone presents just as much danger to motorists as someone jaywalking and should be held, at minimum, to the same penalty.”

She added that half of the proposed fine would be used for ‘safety education’ about the dangers of walking and texting. She also cited a National Safety Council report that shows distracted walking incidents involving mobile phones accounted for an estimated 11,101 injuries from 2000 through 2011.

The study found a majority of those injured were female, and most were aged 40 or younger.  The most prevalent activity at the time of injury was found to be talking on the phone, whilst texting accounted for 12 percent. Nearly 80 percent of the injuries occurred as the result of a fall, while around nine percent occurred from the pedestrian striking a motionless object. The most common injury types included dislocations or fractures, sprains or strains, and concussions or contusions.

Experts have claimed distracted walking is an increasing problem around the world, with people becoming more and more dependent on technology for both personal and professional reasons. They have also noted that pedestrian deaths have been rising in recent years.

This noted rise in deaths coincides with other US states introducing bills targeting pedestrians and/or bicyclists. For instance, a bill pending in Hawaii would fine someone $250 if he or she crossed the street with an electronic device. Similar bills have, however. also failed in Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada, and New York.

Douglas Shinkle, the transportation programme director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, summarised the legislative landscape: ‘thus far, no states have enacted a law specifically targeting distracted bicyclists or pedestrians.’ However he added that ‘a few states continue to introduce legislation every year.’

In relation to the bill proposed by Assembly Congresswoman Lampitt, there have been those criticising what they see as unnecessary overview by the state government. Generally, opposition to the bill focuses on the question of how easily the law can be enforced by authorities who will have more serious matters to deal with.

A hearing on the proposed measure is yet to be confirmed, but it is intriguing to see that there have been responses to the problem of ‘distracted walking’, seeking a solution through legal means.

At least, that has been the response in the US. In Europe, a different solution was sought. In Antwerp last year, ‘text walking lanes’ were introduced for a trial period for those pedestrians who walk the walk whilst texting the talk.

The scheme involves providing these pedestrians with their own designated lanes, which are marked with ‘text walking lane’ in English on a number of busy pedestrian shopping streets in the city centre. The plan is to determine whether the creation of these lanes will lead to a decrease in the number of accidents which occur due to distracted walking. Should this be found to be the case, the designated lanes will become a permanent feature of the city.

I have to admit that despite my frustrations with my fellow walkers of Belfast, I do not feel that moving to legislate against so-called ‘distracted walking’ is the right solution. It seems too heavy a reaction to criminalise those who rely heavily on their mobile phones. Whilst proposing such a bill would ensure raising awareness of the dangers around walking and texting, criminalisation of same would surely be a step too far. Besides, as my study of jurisprudence last semester showed, sometimes people simply do not take heed of the law -underage drinking is a good example.

Would I advocate Belfast emulating Antwerp, and establishing designated texting and walking lanes? Goodness knows, Belfast has enough issues with lane designation as it is. Simply mention ‘bus lanes’ to a car driver, and Hell hath no fury. Should there be an introduction of another designated lane, there may just be open revolt. Perhaps someone would even take a photograph of the lane whilst merrily walking by, and not in it it, and upload this photograph to social media with the hashtag ‘#breakingthelaw’…

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