Pedestrians continue their oblivious stroll as drivers hit with tougher laws

Jul 10, 2017, 8:13 AM | Updated: 8:17 am
Is it time to put that cellphone away while walking? (AP)...
Is it time to put that cellphone away while walking? (AP)

Plenty of blame is placed on distracted driving as the cause of serious, fatal crashes around the country, and rightly so. What isn’t being talked about is distracted walking.

In less than two weeks, Washington state drivers will face much more strict rules targeted at smartphone use while driving. The state is finally updating its distracted driving law to catch up to 2017 — it was stuck in the age of flip phones, before apps were common and phones became small computers.

Under the law, drivers will receive a ticket if they are caught using their cellphone or other electronic devices. The first ticket is $136. The second is $235.

The tougher law makes it illegal to hold an electronic device, or essentially do anything with a device unless it requires one swipe or touch (activation/deactivation). That’s true whether the vehicle is in motion or stopped at a light.

“It’s my hope that one day, people will look with the same jaundice eye about distracted driving as people look at driving without seat belts,” said bill sponsor Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) after it was approved.

Fair enough. But while drivers maneuver through an increasingly stringent environment, pedestrians will continue to shove their phones in their faces as they walk along the same — apparently dangerous — roadways where drivers are being ticketed.

Since the introduction of the iPhone just over 10 years ago, sidewalks have become riddled with people who look like they almost fear the thought of looking up and seeing others around them. And as smartphone use increases, so have the number of pedestrian fatalities.

The Governor’s Highway Safety Association projected an 11 percent increase in the number of people on foot killed on U.S. roadways in 2016. States reported 2,660 pedestrian fatalities for the first six months of last year, compared to the 2,486 in 2015.

“There are many possible factors contributing to this spike. As economic conditions improve and gas prices remain low, the U.S. has seen an increase in motor vehicle miles traveled. At the same time, a growing number of Americans are choosing to travel by foot for health, transportation, economic or environmental reasons. Another potential factor is a sharp rise in the use of smartphones to send and receive multimedia messages, a frequent source of mental and visual distraction for both walkers and drivers,” the association reported.

Read that last line again. “Another potential factor is a sharp rise in the use of smartphones,” a distraction for “both walkers and drivers.”

In 2015, the National Safety Council found that distracted walking injuries involving cellphones accounted for more than 11,000 injuries between 2000 and 2011. Interestingly enough, 52 percent of those incidents occurred at home.

But a spokesperson for the council, who said they haven’t done another study since, said distracted walking remains rampant and is likely a factor in car-pedestrian injuries.

“We do not know whether that [11 percent increase in pedestrian deaths] is solely due to distracted walking, but it certainly is a contributor.”

If people are distracted enough by their phones at home to be injured, it’s not a stretch to believe they are also being injured out in public because they can’t look up from their phones.

A recent study in the UK found that people looking at their phones while walking look less frequently at the ground and notice fewer obstacles.

“Our findings indicate that phone users adopt a cautious approach when faced with fixed objects on the ground. Accidents are likely to be the result of objects suddenly appearing that phone users were not aware of, for example, other pedestrians or vehicles,” Dr. Matthew Timmis said.

Lawmakers want to make our roads safer, but they are clearly ignoring a factor in the statistics they give to justify tougher driving laws.

In the City of Seattle, an update on “Vision Zero,” which is a program looking to make our roads safer, notes that there has been a 300 percent increase in distracted driving over the past three years. That, according to a report by the city, has contributed to 3,000 crashes annually (30 percent of total crashes). Impairment, speeding, and failure to yield to pedestrians are other factors. However, there is little to no mention of pedestrians failing to obey the rules or simply pay attention.

If city and state lawmakers truly want safer streets, then everyone on the street would be encouraged to put down their phones and look up. Because the most attentive drivers can still make mistakes.

Unfortunately, with the way things are heading now, people will continue to cross the street before looking and drivers will always be at fault.

Perhaps we should start building texting lanes and have police regulate them.

Or maybe everyone should just look up from their phones prior to crossing the street and look both ways, before they go head over heels.

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Pedestrians continue their oblivious stroll as drivers hit with tougher laws