More and more states these days are passing laws against distracted driving, taking particular aim at texting and hand-held cell phone use. Some may balk at the idea of taking away personal freedoms, but several high-profile cases of fatal accidents caused by texting while driving demonstrate that improving safety for everyone on the road trumps individual liberties.
However, what if the person being distracted by multi-tasking with an electronic device isn’t the driver, but the pedestrian? A recent report from the Associated Press notes a growing trend of accidents caused by distracted walking, whether it’s talking on a phone, texting, listening to music or playing a video game.
Reports of injuries to distracted walkers treated at hospital emergency rooms have more than quadrupled in the past seven years. At least 1,152 people were treated in U.S. emergency rooms last year for injuries suffered while walking and using some type of electronic device, the Consumer Product Safety Commission told the AP. And that’s likely an underestimate because patients may not mention they were using such devices at the time they were injured.
The cases include a 24-year-old woman who walked into a telephone pole while texting; a 28-year-old man who was walking along a road when he fell into a ditch while talking on a cell phone; a 12-year-old boy who was looking at a video game when he was clipped by a pickup truck as he crossed
A University of Maryland study found 116 cases over six years in which pedestrians were killed or seriously injured while wearing headphones. In two-thirds of the cases the victims were men under age 30. Half the cases involved trains. In a third of the incidents, a warning horn was sounded just before the accident.
Researchers say they’re not surprised that multi-tasking pedestrians run into trouble, the AP reports. Psychological studies show most people can’t focus on two things at once. Rather, their attention shifts rapidly back and forth between tasks, and performance suffers. But like a lot of drivers who use cell phones behind the wheel, pedestrians often think they’re in control and that it’s all the other fools on their phones who aren’t watching what they’re doing.
State and local officials all over the country are struggling to figure out how to respond, and in some cases asking how far government should go in trying to protect people from themselves. In Delaware, highway safety officials opted for a public education campaign, placing decals on crosswalks and sidewalks at busy intersections urging pedestrians to "Look up. Drivers aren’t always looking out for you."
Some states are trying a more forceful approach, but with little success. When the Utah Transit Authority adopted an ordinance barring pedestrians from using cell phones, headphones or other distracting electronic devices while crossing the tracks of its light rail system in Salt Lake City, subject to a $50 fine, the Legislature refused to make it a statewide law. Distracted walking bills in the Arkansas, Illinois and New York legislatures also went nowhere, the AP reports.
The reluctance of state legislatures to pass such bills is understandable. It would be yet another example of a nanny state imposing onerous laws on individual behavior, even if the laws are designed to protect those individuals from themselves. What’s next, passing laws against walking while intoxicated?
Like DUIs, laws related to distracted driving can be justified because a vehicle weighing thousands of pounds and traveling 30 mph or more can be a dangerous weapon and inflict much more damage and serious injuries on innocent bystanders. In most cases of distracted walking the only one hurt is the pedestrian, who ultimately must take personal responsibility for their own safety and their own stupidity.
Instead of passing laws, which would be nearly impossible to enforce, a better approach would be education and a public service campaign like the one in Delaware. If you hammer the message home often enough, eventually it will sink in.