Yes, few things are as annoying — or terrifying — in modern life than someone so engrossed in their smartphone that they step off the curb into oncoming traffic. But, no, making it a fineable offense is not the best way to deter this dangerous practice.
State legislators are now considering a bill that will bump up jaywalking fines for people using smartphones or other mobile devices and/or wearing headphones or earbuds. Introduced by state Representative Colleen Garry of Dracut, the bill’s text states, “the penalties shall be increased to $50 for a first offense, $100 for second offense, and $200 for a third or subsequent offenses.”
Last month, Honolulu became the first major city to levy fines, up to $99, for pedestrians caught crossing the street while texting or looking at their phones. Similar legislation also passed in San Mateo, Calif., earlier this year, but has been rejected in other states.
While driver fatalities and injuries have dropped in the Commonwealth, the same can’t be said for injuries to pedestrians and cyclists. According to the state Department of Transportation, one in four deaths in motor vehicle crashes involves people on foot or riding bicycles. MassDOT spokeswoman Jacquelyn Goddard told the Globe’s Beth Teitell there’s no data “to indicate how the use of technology played a role in injuries or deaths.”
Few need statistics to prove what is apparent. Our streets are filled with people zombified by the glow of that contraption in the palm of their hand. Texting isn’t the only culprit. It’s also selfie videos, Facebook feeds, tweets, Instagram “likes,” and posts to Snapchat that seemingly can’t wait.
It’s not that those who text and walk don’t understand the risks. And the fact that they do it anyway undermines the case for fines: If getting injured or killed isn’t a deterrent already, it’s unlikely that a fine is going to achieve anything beyond clogging already overburdened courts with people eager to contest their tickets.
In 2010, the state passed its Safe Driving Law, banning typing, sending, or reading electronic messages on handheld devices while operating a motor vehicle. Yet loopholes in the law, such as allowing usage of GPS apps like Google Maps, make it difficult to enforce. While cited violations have increased statewide, from about 1,100 in 2011 to nearly 8,600 last year, there’s no indication that distracted driving has decreased.
As bike lanes here create safer roads for cyclists, legislators should consider options to make distracted walking less of a hazard. In a town near Amsterdam, officials are testing an embedded crosswalk light at one of its intersections. Synched and color-
coded to the regular traffic light, the glowing strip’s placement makes it more likely to be seen by those already looking down at their phones.
Fines aren’t enough to force people to put down their phones. Combatting this walking dread requires clever out-of-the-box ideas instead of a new law that will penalize distracted pedestrians but won’t make the streets any safer.