Society

New Jersey Shouldn't Ban Texting While Walking

| by Nik Bonopartis
a woman looking at her cellphone while standing on a sidewalka woman looking at her cellphone while standing on a sidewalk

New Jersey certainly has its share of problems.

The state is struggling to deal with a $54 million shortfall in its pension system, according to NJ.com. Moody's Investors Service has downgraded the state's debt rating for a record ninth time, thanks to enormous unfunded liabilities. Atlantic City, once considered the Las Vegas of the east coast, is a virtual ghost town. And while the rest of the U.S. has moved on from the economic recession, CNN points out New Jersey is still struggling to win back jobs.

You'd think the state's lawmakers would have their hands full with those pressing issues, but one member of the assembly has decided the state should expand into a new area -- regulating the use of cellphones while walking.

Democratic State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt wants to outlaw texting while walking. In a bill she introduced to the state legislature, pedestrians caught using their cellphones while walking across the street could be fined $50.

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While headlines about the proposed law say textwalkers could face jail time, that's technically not true -- the charge is a violation equal to jaywalking, so police aren't going to be putting anyone in a holding cell or a county jail for that charge alone.

In justifying the need this law, Lampitt compared texting while walking to texting while driving.

"Distracted pedestrians, like distracted drivers, present a potential danger to themselves and drivers on the road," the assemblywoman wrote in a statement. "As people's behaviors change so must our policy."

Traffic safety groups say the rise of distracted walking goes hand-in-hand with an increase in pedestrian traffic deaths. In 2005, pedestrian deaths accounted for 11 percent of traffic fatalities. By 2014, 15 percent of all traffic fatalities were pedestrian deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Those numbers aren't tied to cellphone usage, and there are no statistics that measure how many dead pedestrians were using their phones in the moments before the collisions that took their lives.

Joy Vence's 89-year-old mother was killed in a crosswalk after she was hit by a driver who was distracted by a cellphone, according to NJ.com. Now, Vence is among those pushing for a law governing pedestrian use of phones.

"Awareness is the key," Vence said. "If you are aware of your surroundings and what could happen, I don't believe a person would take the chance of being distracted. The life you save may be your own."

While that's true, and while it's certainly possible a portion of the increase in pedestrian deaths could be attributed to pedestrians distracted by phones, it's also just as likely that the spike in deaths is attributable to drivers using their phones.

What Lampitt and others are not talking about are the fundamental differences between a distracted person walking on a street, and a distracted driver behind the wheel of a 4,000-pound machine.

As ghastly as it may seem, human bodies are little more than bags of blood and water held together by bones, tendons and skin. Our bodies weren't made for zipping around at 75 mph in heavy machines that could double as murder weapons.

Driver distraction is fundamentally different than pedestrian distraction because it's the driver who is controlling a potential weapon of mass destruction, a two-ton machine that can end a dozen lives in an instant by skipping the curb on a busy street. This is why penalties for driving while using a phone are so severe, and why state and federal governments have poured enormous resources into education campaigns aimed at raising awareness.

And that's where the anti-textwalking movement's efforts are better spent -- on education, not legislation.

Trying to regulate how pedestrians use their phones is not only intrusive, it creates another headache for law enforcement. Ticketing pedestrians for jaywalking is already a nuisance, and likely doesn't help community policing efforts. Like taxing junk food, there's no evidence it will help save people from themselves.

Besides, trying to limit the use of tech is a pointless exercise, especially at a time when wearables are on the cusp of the mainstream. In a few years, people won't be looking down at their smartphones -- they'll be looking through networked glasses or contact lenses at augmented reality. The mobile Internet will be an abstraction layer on top of reality, not something people access through a tiny screen. Things like Google Glass and the Apple Watch are only the beginning.

If New Jersey lawmakers want to show they're smart and reasonable, they'll either reject Lampitt's bill, or draft a new piece of legislation that acknowledges connected life isn't going away.

Click here for the opposing view on this topic.

Sources: NJ.com (2) (3), CNN Money, Governors Highway Safety Association / Photo credit: News.com.au

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