Over the past several years, we've spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the subject of distracted driving and its effect on the nation's traffic fatality rate. What we haven't discussed very often is the subject of distracted walking, which many blame for an uptick in pedestrian fatalities.
But distracted walking may finally have its moment in the sun. A member of the New Jersey Assembly is sponsoring legislation that would make it a crime to text while walking. The key text of the short bill says:
"The use of a wireless telephone or electronic communication device by a pedestrian on a public roadway shall be unlawful except when the telephone is a hands-free wireless telephone or the electronic communication device is used hands-free."
If enacted, the Pedestrian Safety Act would fine violators up to $50 per infraction, with half of that sum allocated to public education programs about the dangers of distracted walking. The bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt, notes that the fine is on par with that for jaywalkers.
The bill makes a few exceptions for using handheld devices--for example, when the pedestrian's life is in danger or when the pedestrian needs to report an emergency like a fire or traffic accident.
There's little doubt that the Pedestrian Safety Act is well-intentioned. A recent report from the National Safety Council says that distracted walking caused more than 11,000 injuries between 2000 and 2011. The majority of those--52 percent--happened at home, not along roadways, but still, it's hard to argue that mobile phones don't pose a distraction risk.
That said, Lampitt's bill may not stand much chance of passing. Similar legislation has been proposed in other states like Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada, and New York, but all have failed. To date, no state has been able to pass a law that targets distracted pedestrians.
Maybe that's because some lawmakers see bills like this as overreaching, fostering a "nanny state". Others may not believe that such laws can be enforced. And still others worry that, like other laws for petty offenses (e.g. loitering, blocking a sidewalk), distracted walking laws could be misused if not applied uniformly.
This article first appeared in The Car Connection.