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DISTRACTED POLICY

Honolulu is the first major US city to fine pedestrians for viewing their phones at a crosswalk

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Are distracted pedestrians actually at fault?
  • Hanna Kozlowska
By Hanna Kozlowska

Investigative reporter

This article is more than 2 years old.

In a move aimed at preventing accidents involving pedestrians who are focused on their phones instead of oncoming traffic, the city of Honolulu is introducing fines for distracted walking. The new ordinance is directed at people “viewing” their electronic devices—whether for texting, gaming, or using social media.

Hawaii’s capital is reportedly the first major US city to punish the ubiquitous behavior, with the first offense fined at a maximum $35, the second at $75, and the third at $99. Proposed by a group of high-school students, and presented last week by mayor Kirk Caldwell, the measure was met with some criticism.

One resident complained that the law, which goes into effect Oct. 25, was intrusive, and a distraction from larger problems, Reuters reported. Henry Grabar at Slate points to it as yet another example of over-policing of American life—and also notes that the evidence about the dangers of so-called “smartphone zombies” is inconclusive.

While accidents involving pedestrians are indeed rising, so have, in the past two years, road deaths overall, suggesting the behavior of drivers (including those using mobile phones) is also factor, he argues.

A 2016 report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration underlines that distracted walking is a “real problem” but that it is hard to quantify, and its risks are understudied in comparison to distracted driving.

Research confirms that those who use their phones while crossing the street behave differently. One study showed that it took cell-phone users nearly eight seconds longer to cross the street than other pedestrians (82 seconds versus 74). Those who were talking on their phone were more likely to weave, and change direction—and the study was published in 2009, before smartphones were everywhere.

Cities around the world are trying various tactics to keep texters safe. In Augsburg, Germany, after two pedestrians were hit by street cars while looking at their screens, the city installed ground-level traffic lights so that people don’t have to look up to be warned of an oncoming tram. The city of Fort Lee, New Jersey introduced penalties for people who texted while jaywalking in 2012. 

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