Texting while driving has become socially unacceptable across the country; now it’s time to ban distracted walking.
The other day, I watched from across the street as a pedestrian waited for the walk signal at a crosswalk. He was on his phone. The light turned green. Absorbed in his device, the man didn’t notice. The blinking red hand started its countdown. With four seconds to go, Mr. Device finally looked up and began to cross. The light turned red when he was in the middle of the street.
The guy was a textbook “smombie.” The word, short for “smartphone zombie,” was voted Germany’s Youth Word of the Year in 2015, and was coined to describe “a pedestrian who walks slowly and without attention to their surroundings because they are focused on their smartphone.”
Smombies are more than minor annoyances — they’re a threat to themselves and to those who swerve to avoid them. Pedestrian deaths were up 11 percent in 2016, according to a report by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, which attributes this alarming statistic to increases both in walking as a mode of transportation and in distraction due to “growing use of smartphone technology.”
Remember Pokémon Go, the Sony app that swept the nation in 2016? In it, players view an augmented reality through their smartphone screens. The goal is to capture virtual monsters in public areas. Soon after the game caught on, newspaper headlines such as “Pokémon Go’ players fall off 90-foot ocean bluff” began to appear. The game was linked to so many accidents that the Journal of the American Medical Association published an article on it last year in which researchers compiled all public tweets from a 10-day span that contained the terms “Pokémon” and “driving,” “drives,” “drive” or “car.” Of more than 345,000 such messages, 13,800 indicated a pedestrian was distracted while playing the game (e.g., “almost got hit by a car playing Pokémon Go”).
In 2013, researchers at the University of Washington observed pedestrians at three of Seattle’s busiest intersections and found that walkers who were looking at phones were 3.9 times more likely to jaywalk, cross on a red light, and/or fail to check for oncoming traffic while crossing. Furthermore, the study found that because they were slower to cross, device-users, especially those texting, spent more time in harm’s way.
When pedestrians are struck, the accidents are disproportionally deadly, according to a 2016 city study.
While pedestrians are often innocent victims of motor-vehicle accidents, they are at fault in an estimated 15 percent of deadly collisions, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Nevada. Yes, drivers — the ones operating 2-ton machines — should continue to be held accountable in distracted-driving collisions. Our state’s current law, however, does not place any responsibility on pedestrians.
On Oct. 25, Honolulu became the first city in America to legally acknowledge pedestrian device use as a danger. Dubbed the “distracted walking bill,” the city’s Bill 6 prohibits walkers from looking at devices as they cross streets. (Emergency situations are exempt.) Fines range from $15 for a first offense to $99 for a third.
Meanwhile, in Seattle, Vision Zero, a city initiative launched in 2015 to “end serious and fatal crashes by 2030,” focuses on driver, not pedestrian, responsibility. Unless the city also holds walkers accountable, Vision Zero will fail to reach its goal.
In 2008, Washington became the first state to ban texting while driving; nine years later, this behavior has become socially unacceptable across the country. It’s time to start another trend — to ban distracted walking. Sure, such a law may be difficult to implement (imagine cops hiding in bushes, waiting spy-style to cite unsuspecting smombies).
But, as in the case of driving, a ban on distracted walking doesn’t need to be fully enforceable to be effective. It would simply reinforce common sense: The world can be a dangerous place — we all need to pay attention!
If, like me, you fear a smombie takeover, please contact your legislator about pedestrian responsibility.