New Jersey Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt introduced a proposal that would ban texting while walking on public roads and would also ban pedestrians from using electronic communications on public roads unless they are hands-free.
The incentive to follow the law is a big stick: violators would face up to $50 in fines, 15 days in jail or potentially both, according to The Associated Press.
While this particular law is somewhat draconian in scope and punishment, it is based on a real and pressing concern about the problem of distracted pedestrians who present a potential danger to others on the road, including motorists and bicyclists.
If the objective is to make public spaces safer for the people who use them, then there needs to be some level of awareness about and enforcement against behaviors that create hazards for everyone.
New Jersey is hardly the only place where legislators are increasingly concerned about distracted pedestrians. Minnesota, Utah, North Carolina, South Carolina and Washington have all instituted pedestrian safety programs, The Pew Charitable Trusts reports. New York and San Francisco have tried to make their cities more pedestrian-friendly, which would mitigate the potential dangers that distracted pedestrians could cause.
Utah and New Jersey have taken a tougher approach against distracted pedestrians in the past few years: Utah's state transit authority approved a $50 fine for distracted walking near commuter rail, while the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, used existing jaywalking laws to impose $85 fines on "dangerous" walkers, according to CBS News.
The evidence that distracted walking is an issue on public roads is staggering and visible. The percent of pedestrian deaths relative to all fatalities has risen from 11 percent in 2005 to 15 percent in 2014, while a National Safety Council report cited by Lampitt in her proposal shows walking incidents involving cellphones accounted for more than 11,000 injuries between 2000 and 2011.
Jack Nasar, a researcher at Ohio State University, said he observed a six-fold increase in distracted walking injuries between 2005 and 2010, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts. However, the real number of injuries is likely to be underreported because the injured individual would have to admit to texting or talking on the phone while walking.
In a country where the interests of pedestrians and motorists need to be somewhat balanced, much attention has rightly been paid to using policy to decrease distracted driving either by changing the road environment -- lowering the speed limit or expanding sidewalks -- or increasing the penalties for distracted driving. Distracted walking may not seem like such an obvious public safety menace, but injuries and fatalities stemming from it have been on the rise since the turn of the century and there is clearly a problem.
One can debate whether or not Lampitt's proposal goes too far, especially with the potential for jail time. But it really hits at the same sort of logic that criminalizes jaywalking in places where there are lots of motorists -- you are walking on a public road and need to follow the rules for pedestrians on that road, such as paying attention to the light and going when signaled by a "walk" sign.
Sure, most people have jaywalked, but on a busy street during rush hour, it puts the pedestrian and motorists at risk. The same logic should apply to distracted walkers, which is why Lampitt's proposal is a step in the right direction -- even if it goes too far.