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Put that phone down and just walk

istockphoto/Eric Hood

THE TOWN of Fort Lee, N.J., has outlawed texting while jaywalking, issuing scores of $54 tickets to pedestrians who send or read messages while drifting out of crosswalks. Tiny Rexburg, Idaho, bans texting while crossing the street. Last year the Utah Transit Authority created a $50 civil fine for distracted walking across its transit tracks. Even in Nevada, where “Anything Goes” should be the official state song, legislators filed a bill this year making it a crime to read, write, or send data while crossing a public way.

Before you scoff at this new low in nanny state-ism, consider the US Consumer Product Safety Commission’s report that 1,152 pedestrians were treated in emergency rooms after being injured while using a cellphone or some other electronic device in 2010 — and the number had doubled since the year before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that pedestrian fatalities rose by 4.2 percent in 2010 over the previous year, and injuries were up 19 percent, even though overall traffic deaths declined.


It’s impossible to tell what percentage of pedestrian injuries occurred while the victims were distracted by their handheld devices, since police rarely collect that information. But just look around. The ubiquitous, neck-craning posture of multitasking pedestrians on sidewalks and street corners — call it the iStoop — is nearing epidemic proportions. (Indeed, “text neck” has already been defined as a medical condition; in extreme cases it can pull your spine out of alignment.) Liberty Mutual Insurance Company conducted a national survey of 1,000 residents in April and found 26 percent who admitted to texting or reading in crosswalks; that kind of self-reported number is probably too low.

The Internet is full of home videos that show people walking into ditches, fountains, and lampposts with their heads stuck in a text — and I don’t mean “Moby-Dick.” Researchers at Stony Brook University studied the gait and posture of pedestrians using mobile devices and found that texters were most likely to deviate from a straight line, walk more slowly, and even forget the path they had just traveled.


Despite these warnings, most legislative efforts to ban distracted walking have failed, thanks to fears of overweening government authority. I’m not a big fan either of passing rules that can’t be enforced. Criminalizing everyday behavior only invites scofflaws, and tends to backfire. Mostly, what the texting-while-walking debate is good for is getting us to look at our own addictions.

How many of us reach to check our e-mail the minute there is any lull in activity — including stopping at a red light — because we crave that squirt of dopamine?

We can no longer stand in lines at the bank or the grocery store without reading, writing, or talking on our devices; the prospect of open time fills us with existential dread. In a newly released poll conducted by Harris Interactive, 72 percent say they are within 5 feet of their smartphones a majority of the time. Twelve percent say they have checked their phones while in church.

The temptation to reply to that Pavlovian trill is nearly irresistible. As with cigarettes and snack foods, it almost seems like the addictive nature of our mobile devices is engineered right into the interface; even the most rabid screen fiend would never consider picking up a newspaper or book to read while driving.


This week The New York Times reported on a new trend in “digital detox” summer camps for adults; the big attraction is the enforcement of a no-tech rule. Phones, tablets, even watches are banned, the better to smell the s’mores. More seriously, the Times described a 45-day addiction recovery program for young adults (mostly male) whose dependence on electronic devices has led to failures in school or work. The cost: $18,500.

In the prophetic words of author Neil Postman (writing in 1985, years before the first smartphone) we are “amusing ourselves to death” — seduced into a kind of contact-craving mindlessness. If threats to our own life and limb don’t get our attention, maybe new laws with hefty fines are a reasonable way to scare us straight.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.