It’s definitely a problem in cities, as you try to walk down the street only to have some jerk walk into you because his eyes are laser-focused on his iToy and he’s got absolutely no clue what’s happening around him and can’t bring himself to care. It’s likely a problem everywhere, as the problem occurs wherever people can’t manage to walk without staring at their phone.
And then there’s the schadenfreude that occurs when they walk into a wall or sign post, which can be very damaging and painful, even if caused by their own inability to get their head out of their…phone. But is making texting while walking a crime the way to fix it?
Officials in Montclair, in Southern California, decided that their 39,000 residents needed a heads-up — literally. There were accidents that resulted in part from pedestrians burying their noses in smartphones with their minds miles away. Something had to be done about these “cellphone zombies,” Edward Starr, the city manager, said. So Montclair made it illegalto cross streets while on a phone, texting or listening to music with buds in both ears. Fines of $100, and as much as $500 for repeat offenses, will go into effect in August.
The good, ol’ “something had to be done” excuse, giving rise to yet another new crime. From the perspective of a government guy, what else can he do? He’s only got a hammer, so everything that needs something done has to be a nail. It’s not his fault that fines and, dare I say it, incarceration are the only available solutions.
Other places have had the same idea. Honolulu enacted a comparable lawmonths ago. Rexburg, Idaho, a town about the same size as Montclair, adopted a similar ban in 2011 after the shock of having five pedestrians die. It hasn’t had a single pedestrian fatality since. Legislation along the same lines has been contemplated in several states and major cities. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Thursday that he, too, was open to the idea.
For the “most progressive mayor ever,” Bill de Blasio really loves him some new crimes. But I digress. And being “distracted,” as it’s kindly called, is becoming a matter of increasing concern.
Maybe it’s time for every municipality to get serious about distracted walking, as it’s called, even though distracted driving is plainly a bigger concern. This is the belief theologically held by many motorists that they can read email, text friends, call the office and all the while stay fully focused on the road. They’re delusional. They’re also dangerous.
But there is a significant distinction between distracted driving and walking. The former is about the harm the driver can do to others as his 2000 pound missile hurtles into some poor schmuck minding his own business and driving safely. The latter is an annoyance, for sure, but not exactly a threat of death and destruction.
While many of us, particularly those of us who don’t obsess over how many likes we got on Facebook, find “those people” who bump into us, or around whom we’re constrained to navigate, a pain in the butt, is it really that “horrifying” that we need to turn it into a crime?
Enforcing an ordinance like Montclair’s won’t be easy. You can’t put police on every corner. And as sure as a sunrise, some people will wail about personal freedoms being violated. But there’s a social contract to be observed. When you venture forth in public, you assume certain responsibilities, be it preserving your own life or having regard for others. Even in nonlethal situations, who isn’t driven crazy when blocked on the sidewalk by people ambling so s-l-o-w-l-y, with eyes glued to their screens?
Of course there’s “a social contract to be observed,” and it goes well beyond being a mindless cellphone drone. We don’t pick our nose in elevators and fling the buggers at the person standing next to us. And we don’t get arrested if we do.
And then comes the sequelae of this, as any, offense against the “social contract.” Whenever behaviors are controlled by the police, there is a profound question to be asked: Is it worthy of execution? Enforcement always carries the potential of death, no matter how insignificant the offense. Should anyone, ever, be killed for texting, no matter how annoying they are?
But what of the new offense’s pretext potential? Will it be used as an excuse for the cops to go after someone they want to stop for ulterior reasons, to get an ID or to question someone they would otherwise have no justification to bother? What of the right to be left alone?
As it takes a cop to nail a texter, and the police have this peculiar tendency to deploy in certain neighborhoods and not others, what are the chances this will have a far greater impact on minorities? Not that white kids aren’t as likely to engage in the heinous offense of distracted walking, but if there are no cops on the streets where they walk and plenty of cops hanging around Martin Luther King Boulevard, the burden will fall more heavily on a certain color of folk than another.
If this was a serious offense against the social contract, maybe it would be understandable, even unavoidable. And it’s not that it doesn’t present some degree of risk for the unwary, most notably the fools who engage in the distraction, turning it into the newest offense raises issues and problems that just aren’t worthy of their consequences.
Why not a public service campaign to make texting while walking unattractive, rude and offensive? Insufficient to stem the need to stare incessantly at the phone? Maybe, but far better than yet another round of criminalization of trivial conduct, with all its consequences.