Have you seen the video of the woman in New Jersey who fell down an open cellar door because she was walking and checking her cellphone at the same time?
Millions of people have seen the short clip, in which the woman tumbles 6 feet. She was taken to a hospital with serious injuries.
A bill pending final passage before the Honolulu City Council predates the June accident. But it has the same concern in mind: People glued to their smartphones aren’t watching where they’re going.
Should the full council pass Bill 6 next month, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell allow it to become law, pedestrians crossing a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device could be ticketed and fined.
That would not prevent the New Jersey incident from happening in Honolulu, because it took place on a city sidewalk. But it just may deter people from foolishly having similar experiences in public spaces.
“This has to do with ensuring that, as pedestrians cross the street, they are fully aware of their surroundings rather than looking at their mobile devices,” said the bill’s author, Councilman Brandon Elefante. “As technology advances, more and more people really don’t look both ways when they cross the street. They can be distracted by what’s on their devices.”
A key word in Bill 6 is viewing.
The first draft of the proposed ordinance featured the word using, but that was wisely changed. Staff at Elefante’s office explained that holding a phone to an ear while crossing the street is not considered viewing, which is defined as looking in the direction of a screen.
But Bill 6 doesn’t just apply to cell phones. Pagers, laptops, video games, personal digital assistants and digital cameras are classified as “mobile electronic equipment.”
Someone trying to make a 911 emergency call would not be penalized. Nor would emergency responders and drivers in the course of their work-related duties.
The Honolulu Police Department likes Bill 6.
“The HPD believes that pedestrian and traffic safety are shared responsibilities requiring a collaborative effort,” Maj. Kerry Inouye of the Traffic Division said in testimony. “When a pedestrian commits a hazardous act, it can endanger motorists and other pedestrians as well.”
Taylor Fujimoto, a sophomore at Waipahu High School, also gave the bill a thumbs-up.
As a member of the school’s Youth For Safety Club, she and others conducted a pedestrian safety campaign along Farrington Highway. Waipahu is part of Elefante’s district.
“I have seen peers step down from a curb to cross the street without looking for any oncoming vehicles, or whether approaching ones have come to a complete stop,” said Fujimoto. “In addition, many others cross the street leisurely without even sparing a glance at the signal timer ticking down.”
Fujimoto touches on one of the most important aspects about mobile devices: They are becoming ubiquitous, especially among the younger set. Think of all those Pokémon Go zombies last summer, including two that distractedly walked off cliffs.
But another testifier on Bill 6, Shannon Ball, captured well the best argument as to why such a law is not needed.
“While I appreciate the intention, this is a significant governmental overreach and infringement on a person’s basic civil liberty to be able to walk around our city, and our basic constitutional rights to enjoyment,” Ball testified last month. “Stop treating our citizens like we are babies.”
Ball said there was no statistical evidence linking mobile use by pedestrians to increases in accidents. Instead of passing an “intrusive bill,” Ball advised more education about responsible electronics use.
Elefante acknowledges the concern of Honolulu becoming a nanny state. But he again stressed that crossing streets and sidewalks is a matter of public safety.
He admits the data from HPD on pedestrian fatalities is fuzzy — that is, it’s difficult to pinpoint whether accidents happened because pedestrian were using devices, motorists were, or that crosswalk signals were ignored.
The councilman agrees, however, that education is central to his bill becoming a successful law. He says he’s got a commitment from HPD that there will be outreach efforts should the bill become law, including possible public service announcements.
Bill 6 is also being amended to make fines less harsh. It would target the chronic offender: from $15 to $100 for a first offense, up to $200 for a second offense within the same year and up to $500 for a third offenses and beyond within that same time period.
By the way, Elefante has seen the New Jersey video. He called our attention to another one posted on YouTube, this one a French crosswalk safety advertisement.
“In Europe’s major cities, thousands of pedestrians are victims of traffic accidents every year,” the video’s narrator intones. “In the Paris region alone, there are more than 4,500.”
The French PSA does not refer to using mobile devices. But a simulated accident in the clip certainly helps to, if you will, drive the point home about how dangerous crosswalks can be.
The City Council should approve, and Mayor Kirk Caldwell should sign, Bill 6.
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