- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2019

Laws aimed at stopping pedestrians focused on their smartphones from wandering into traffic are generating criticism from safety advocates who say such measures are misguided and fruitless.

Charles Komanoff, a New York-based pedestrian and bicycle rights advocate, says distracted walking laws — like those enacted in Honolulu and a handful of West Coast municipalities — blame pedestrian victims for traffic accidents, not distracted drivers or congested streets.

“It is completely idiotic and backward,” Mr. Komanoff, a noted economist and transportation expert, told The Washington Times.

New York’s Senate currently is considering a statewide proposal that would make it illegal to text and walk at the same time. Violators could be fined as much as $250.

A recent study showed that almost 1 in 3 people in Manhattan admitted to crossing streets while wearing headphones, talking on a cellphone or looking down at an electronic device.

Meanwhile, the Governors Highway Safety Association has reported that about 6,000 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in 2017. But that report did not specify how many of those accidents were caused by distracted walking.

Mr. Komanoff has conducted several traffic fatality studies, and says all of them have concluded that drivers are responsible for the vast majority of accidents in which pedestrians are killed.

“The burden is always on the driver,” he said. “Motor vehicle operators are the ones who bring danger onto the streets, with their two-ton vehicles that race by at 30 mph. Cars are such a hulking presence that one can understand why pedestrians use devices [like smartphones] as an adaptive response.”

In addition, traffic safety expert Peter Lyndon Jacobsen told The Times that no evidence clearly shows that distracted walking is a public danger, other than people tripping because they were paying more attention to a device than the road. One study of 310 cases involving injured pedestrians found that 72% came from falls, he noted.

Mr. Jacobsen and his brother Joel developed the much-cited “safety in numbers” theory of traffic safety, which says that a motorist is less likely to hit someone who is walking or bicycling if more people walk or ride bikes. It has been used to justify the expansion of ride-sharing bicycle programs.

“Driving while talking on the phone is a serious danger to everyone but talking on the phone while you walk is really only putting yourself at risk,” Mr. Jacobsen said. “These laws should attack the danger, cars — not the victims, who are people.”

Many urban lawmakers across the country see the burden of responsibility differently, such as D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who has considered distracted walking measures as part of a larger proposal to reduce traffic fatalities.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least 11 states have considered legislation to deal with distracted pedestrians or bicyclists. No state, however, has enacted a distracted walking or biking law.

Ben Fried, a spokesman for the think tank TransitCenter, criticized New York’s distracted walking proposal, saying the overall logic behind penalizing pedestrians is weak.

“Jaywalking enforcement is not a route to pedestrian safety, and this bill is not going to be a route to prevent traffic injuries and deaths,” Mr. Fried told CityLab.com. “No city has ever fined pedestrians and achieved huge safety gains as a result.”

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