Distracted walking, looking at a phone when crossing the road can cost you a fine in Honolulu

Honolulu has become the largest US city to make looking at phones illegal while crossing the road. The safety issue linked to handheld devices is gaining importance as accidents increase.

Whereas in China the “first mobile phone sidewalk” was installed in 2014 in Chongqing municipality (an area reserved for people using their devices while walking), the United States is struggling to introduce laws to prevent texting while driving or crossing roads. Starting from this October, though, in the heavily touristy island of Oahu in Hawaii, home to the state capital Honolulu, crossing while looking at your phone, tablet and or while playing video games can cost you a fine of between 15 and 35 dollars, and even 75 to 99 dollars if it is the third time you get caught within a year of the first violation. Many police officers admit enforcement is going to be a challenge since it is difficult for tourists to even be informed about this law, adopted after the state ranked 13th among the most dangerous places for pedestrians between 2010 and 2014.

What is distracted walking and what laws are there against it

The act of staring at your cellphone on the move is commonly known as “distracted walking“. While being the largest US city to have banned this practice, Honolulu is not the first or the only one affected by the problem. In the state of New Jersey, the small city of Fort Lee banned texting while walking on pain of an 85 dollar fine and the law may even be extended to the state level. Also San Mateo County in California and Stamford in Connecticut are trying to outlaw the use of cellphones and other electronic devices when on the road.

Though similar bills have failed in recent years in the states of New York, Arkansas, Illinois and Nevada, experts say distracted walking is a growing problem, with the number of pedestrian deaths rising nationally from 11 per cent of traffic fatalities in 2005 to 15 per cent in 2014. In big cities like New York where 8.5 million people live, distracted walking can be a major safety concern. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), nearly 5,000 pedestrians were killed and an estimated 76,000 injured in traffic collisions in the United States in 2012. And these numbers don’t take into account occasional injuries or unreported events, which are supposed to be the majority.

honolulu new york pokemon go
Last year in New York the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to display safety messages when the craze for Pokemon Go spread throughout the city © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

An attack on personal liberty or a necessary regulation?

Many tweets and comments to the news from Honolulu accuse the measure to be unfair towards pedestrians and their rights, instead of focusing attention on how careless drivers cause car accidents. They claim the law is shifting the responsibility onto pedestrians who have to avoid being hit, whereas drivers are those responsible. Others also claim that the new law still allows pedestrians to talk on their phones and listen to music just as long as they don’t look at their device – which they consider equally distracting.

See what happened last year when the mobile game Pokemon Go spread throughout cities and people were so distracted as to climb into subway platforms in New York trying to jump on the little creatures. Common sense is difficult to enshrine into law but the issue at stake now with distracted walking is the same as with distracted driving 10 years ago, when texting or using cellphones while driving were still allowed in the country.

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