Are You a ‘Distracted Walker’? Get Ready to Pay Up

The legislative aim in one city is to boost public safety — but not everybody's quite so thrilled with this

You know how when you come across something and squint while reading it, without even realizing it you’re wearing a quizzical expression until you —  well — figure out that your bewilderment is accompanied by a sudden headache twinge? That happened to me.

So I did some digging to satisfy my curiosities regarding a proposed law called “Distracted Walking,” and it is crossing over from idea to reality.

Stamford, Connecticut, Board of Representatives member John Zelinsky seeks to outlaw “distracted walking” in his city, to include a “no talking while walking” clause in the legislation he is purporting. The aim is to boost public safety and “is not actually to raise money for the city, but to hopefully educate the public,” he said. The punitive measure behind each violation is $30. If the proposed ordinance passes, the current authorized sworn contingent of 284 cops to enforce city laws will have a new enforcement challenge while patrolling on the city streets.

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“They’re oblivious to cars. I don’t want any more injuries or deaths as a result of pedestrians getting hit. We’ve had about four or five within the past three or four years,” Zelinsky told the media.

At the time of this writing, indicates Stamford’s “distracted walking” law is opposed by 310 (52.72 percent) and favored by 278 (47.28 percent). Conversely, a CBS New York affiliate claimed that “most city residents seem to like the idea.” Countering the entire notion, Stamford resident Troy Latham said that the virtue of common sense is all that is needed to abate any issues.

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Latham said, “I think that’s ridiculous. If it’s an important text message or call they’re getting, like what if it’s too late, what if their mother’s in the hospital and they need someone to call real quick?”

Another Stamford resident, Terry Barber, countered by saying, “You could prevent a lot of accidents and problems from drivers and pedestrians. When people are walking and texting … it shows irresponsibility and a lack of vigilance.”

To what extent should government intervene? Are privacy rights infringed? Are liberties curbed?

Connecticut state law prohibits any handheld cellphone use while operating a motor vehicle and goes so far as to find a presumptive violation if a driver is seen holding a cellphone while operating a car. Essentially, all cellphone use while driving in Connecticut is prohibited. Assessing this factor and coupling it with the “distracted walking” proposal actually gives it gusto, implying the potential for both sides to be electronically blind to the other.

Stamford’s current population of potential zombies tethered to a cellphone beam is roughly 122,600. Frankly, I know of no one who denies that a seeming abundance of people are mesmerized by whatever is being projected upon their little electronic screens, telegraphing a conduit for global movements. But to what extent should government intervene? How realistic is such a law? Are privacy rights infringed? Are liberties curbed as well?

Honolulu stepped first. Hawaii already has a handheld-phone ban for all drivers in all its counties and was the first state to take it one step further. In July 2017, Honolulu enacted the nation’s first “Distracted Walking Law” in efforts to save folks from themselves. Specifically, those who were completely unaware of stepping into danger zones such as crosswalks are the focus group behind Honolulu’s free-walking ban.

Hawaii already prohibits texting while driving, as do many other states. But this new ban includes not only texting on a cellphone but also viewing other electronic devices such as digital cameras (there goes tourism!), tablets, iPods, and pretty much anything that may divide your attention from bumping into Dog the Bounty Hunter or those too slow to shuffle out of the way.

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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell touted the city’s new law as a safety precaution and not as a money-generating mechanism. Caldwell announced the new law’s gist: “No pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while viewing an electronic device.” For the sake of comprehending how they plan to enforce this law, Honolulu’s ordinance defines “viewing” as “looking in the direction of the screen of a mobile electronic device.”

If caught and cited, each violator stands to receive a $35 ticket from Honolulu police officers.

Exemptions to its law are 911 callers and “emergency responders” to include “firefighters, mobile intensive care technicians, civil defense workers, emergency management workers, police officers, and federal and state law enforcement officers” and only “while in the performance and scope of their official duties.”

Although Honolulu’s distracted walking law may not save anyone from a free-falling coconut, it may reduce the number of lives lost due to inattentive mobility while walking about island streets.

According to Mayor Caldwell’s press statement, “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 country.”

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The University of Maryland conducted a “distracted driving” study a few years ago in which “more than 11,000 injuries resulting from phone-related distraction while walking in the United States between 2000 and 2011” were reported. Note that the 11,000 figure is nationwide and specifies “phone-related distraction” and not only “distracted walking” incidents. Many of the 11,000 instances are likely due to texting while driving infractions involving traffic crashes.

A similar study by University of Maryland noted 1,000 traffic crashes occur per week in Maryland, all due to “distracted driving” involving cellphone use.

I’d be hard-pressed to believe most of that number stems from folks walking into traffic or tripping over plots where statues formerly stood. Conversely, Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (DHSMV) claims it had chronicled close to 50,000 traffic crashes statewide in 2016 alone, all denoted upon state traffic crash reports with “distracted driving” as causation. Comparing that statistic to the aforementioned nationwide one for a span of 11 years is sobering.

A similar study by the University of Maryland noted 1,000 traffic crashes occur per week in Maryland, all due to “distracted driving” involving cellphone use.

As of early August 2017, State Representative Emily Slosberg is proposing beefing up the “no texting while driving” law to a primary offense instead of a secondary offense (cop taking action after first observing a red-light violation or speeding).

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Rep. Slosberg lost her twin sister years ago in a traffic crash involving a distracted driver. Incidentally, four state bills to legislate texting while driving “died” in various committees in Florida Capitol sessions in 2017. I raise the “distracted driving” aspect because it cobbles with any “distracted walking” statutes or ordinances.

As is customary with unveiling new statutes, a grace period is offered so that citizens can be made aware of the law in order to adjust behaviors and cognition before enforcement kicks in and tickets are issued. Although already on the law books, Honolulu is allowing a three-month warning period before the police force starts writing citations. If one were to be stopped for such a violation, the first offense ranges from $15 to $35 and a second offense is fined up to $75, whereas an habitual violator is subject to a $99 hit.

As usual, no matter the aforementioned figures, folks do not take too kindly to being stopped and cited for what is ordinarily construed as a constitutional right. Honolulu says otherwise and hopes its distracted walking law will result in fewer lives lost to pedestrians stepping into traffic or off a panoramic Pacific cliff.

Looking at another sunny place, the “Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law” allows for “using a device or system for navigation purposes.”

Opining logistics. “Looking in the direction of a screen” will undoubtedly come with some legal defenses from those found in violation of this particular Honolulu law. If approved, Stamford’s similar law proposal will confront the same issues. Setting digital cameras while you step out in front of a car will have to be considered when hearing a cop in court claiming you were walking in front of a pineapple truck while focused on recording your vacation. Then again, if you’re on vacation in Hawaii and get a ticket, you’ll likely be paying the ticket from some “mainland” domain, swearing off Waikiki.

Looking at another sunny place, the “Florida Ban on Texting While Driving Law” allows for “using a device or system for navigation purposes.” Without waxing too picayune, that implies verbally — not manually — setting coordinates in a GPS device (my co-pilot is my cellphone), which still requires some technical touching to activate. We are trusting drivers are plotting coordinates before they go mobile, but what if a change arises?

GPS devices also have colorful graphic screens depicting a driver’s trajectory and other pertinent navigational tidbits. Despite where it is positioned in one’s car, eyes are drawn to it and away from the roadway. In short, it poses a slippery slope in terms of legality, safety, and enforceability. We are more than hinting at common sense.

If you distill Stamford, Connecticut’s proposal pertaining to “distracted walking,” which includes both texting and talking on the phone while out and about, you might as well say “no cellphone use in public,” implying the home or office is the only place to legally talk/text. I believe in shooting for the stars. I do not believe in shooting oneself in the foot, because how else would one cross the street?

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I wonder how New York City fares with specific regard to distracted walkers stepping into traffic. It’s a metropolis with over 8.5 million residents and hordes of visitors and tourists on top of that. Given its vast resources and a sworn force close to 35,000 police officers, some NYPD cops are assigned to walking a beat. I wonder if that has any proponent effect on curbing inattentive pedestrians from kissing the grills of ubiquitous taxicabs and becoming road-kill.

Honolulu’s current population is approximately 998,000, complemented by thousands of vacationers, each of whom is subject to Hawaii’s jaywalking law. If a violation is detected by any of a force of 2,000 cops, the infraction is punishable by a fine of $130 for pedestrians who are cited and found guilty. As stipulated in Honolulu PD’s WalkWiseHawaii pedestrian safety pamphlet, always look left-right-left before proceeding across the street. Compellingly, that requires a walker picking up his head if it happens to be projected downward at new Nikes or sidewalk shadows.

Paring it down. States like Hawaii and Connecticut prohibit drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving and while walking with regard to traffic patterns. This implies folks can talk only by way of voice-activated devices that do not require hand use. Some may see that as just another version of someone being distracted, no matter if hands-on or hands-free. Reaching further, the city of Stamford seeks to ban talking while walking across/upon vehicular thoroughfares. However well-intended, I foresee pushback and assertions of infringement on rights.

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“Sometimes, when people have to pay a fine, they may pay more attention to what they’re doing” said Stamford Board of Representative Zelinsky. One may construe that as a new pay-to-play modus operandi with varying perspectives. Just as I refrained from writing tickets as a cop (largely officer’s discretion), citizens cringe at the notion of receiving a citation. Although no cop is wrong for citing drivers/pedestrians for infractions based on probable cause, I preferred a “little educational chat,” which went a long way in my book; it alleviates any acrimonious sting from police/citizen interactions.

The debate seems fair and rightly placed. And, despite arguments on both sides of the coin, law enforcement will enforce what governments place in the law books to the best of their ardent abilities.

Stephen Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and field training officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a senior OpsLens contributor, a researcher, and a writer. This OpsLens article is used with permission.

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meet the author

Stephen Owsinski is a LifeZette contributing editor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is also a columnist for the National Police Association.

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