Distracted Walking law: Are tickets really the best option?

On July 27, Mayor Kirk Caldwell held a press conference at one of Honolulu’s busiest intersections, where he introduced Bill 6 – a law that reminds “people to use common sense as they walk around this beautiful city, so they don’t become another statistic.” This new policy – more commonly known as the Distracted Walking Law – was sparked by an increase of road accidents and was officially put into effect on Oct. 25. It prohibits pedestrians from looking at an electronic device (anything from cell phones, pagers, laptops, and cameras) while crossing a crosswalk. Offenders can be charged anywhere from $15 to $99, depending on the number of times they are caught. The only time a pedestrian would be exempt from this law would be to call 911 to report an emergency. As of this year, Honolulu is the largest city to adopt such a measure.

On paper, the new policy will ensure that both pedestrians and drivers are safe while navigating crosswalks and traffic. According to the New York Times, people who text and walk are four times as likely to engage in at least one dangerous action, like jaywalking or not looking both ways, and take 18 percent more time to cross a street than undistracted pedestrians. What’s more, a 2015 study from the University of Maryland found that more than 11,000 injuries were caused by phone-related distraction while crossing streets between 2000 and 2011. This finding prompted the non-profit National Safety Council to include “distracted walking” in its annual compilation of the biggest risks for unintentional injuries and deaths in the United States.

When it comes to enforcing the new policy, tickets and fines may not be sufficient enough in deterring electronic device use by pedestrians. A lack of police personnel is a major obstacle to ensuring enforcement of the new policy. Everyday, there are thousands of people who walk through the streets of Honolulu. In addition, almost 500,000 people are employed in the area with an additional four million tourists who visit Oahu each year. Yet, the Honolulu Police Department only consists of about 2,000 officers. In the best-case scenario, there is one police officer for every 2,500 civilians. One also has to keep in mind that officers have other matters to attend, and are not always on traffic duty. Therefore, it is simply not practical for officers to scrutinize all 68 square miles of Honolulu 24/7. People know this, so the threat of tickets falls flat when the chance being caught for breaking the law is low.  

A proven alternative to this legislation is the use of lights embedded in the pavement on each side of a crosswalk. This system was adopted by the Netherland town of Bodegraven, which uses the lights as a signal indicating when to walk. For example, green lights mean it is safe to walk and red lights mean pedestrians must not enter the crosswalk. Bodegraven installed these lights due to the prevalence of distracted walkers on their electronic devices while crossing the street. The investment into these lights have more of an impact than tickets because the lights are already on the ground, making them noticeable for a pedestrian looking down at their phone.

Pedestrian safety should always remain a top priority for major cities. Although the intention of The Distracted Walking Law is one to be supported, its method of fines for ensuring pedestrian safety is impractical with Honolulu’s current resources. Instead, efforts should be redirected into implementing a more effective system that has been proven to ensure pedestrian safety.

Although additional amendments are needed in order for the law to be truly effective, the Distracted Walking Law should not be completely disregarded. Whether or not the law will help improve road safety still remains to be seen. However, one thing is clear; legislation in Honolulu is moving in the right direction.

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