‘Zom­bie law’ is a bad idea

Toronto Star - - OPINION -

It is tempt­ing to sup­port any leg­is­la­tion that would im­pose fines on those peo­ple who ha­bit­u­ally bury their faces in a smart­phone and walk the city streets obliv­i­ous to the crowds and cars around them.

But while the epony­mous phone-crazed “zom­bies” of a pro­posed new pro­vin­cial “zom­bie law” are no doubt ir­ri­tat­ing, study af­ter study has shown they don’t pose a sig­nif­i­cant threat to them­selves or oth­ers.

As such, the newly tabled pri­vate mem­ber’s bill at Queen’s Park aimed at curb­ing so-called “dis­tracted walk­ing” amounts to ev­i­dence-blind leg­isla­tive over­reach. The pro­posed law, which would im­pose fines of up to $125 for cross­ing the street while us­ing a cell­phone, is it­self a dis­trac­tion from the real causes and so­lu­tions to On­tario’s — and, in par­tic­u­lar, Toronto’s — grow­ing pedes­trian safety prob­lem.

Forty-two pedes­tri­ans were fa­tally struck by cars in this city last year, the worst death toll in more than a decade. Yet it’s not at all clear that cell­phones played much, if any, role. A 2015 study from Toronto Pub­lic Health found that pedes­trian inat­ten­tive­ness, in­clud­ing but not lim­ited to cell­phone use, contributed to 13 per cent of all col­li­sions. But Amer­i­can data sug­gest that pedes­tri­ans’ use of phones in par­tic­u­lar isn’t much of a prob­lem. Ac­cord­ing to the Fa­tal­ity Anal­y­sis Re­port­ing Sys­tem, a U.S. gov­ern­ment data­base, elec­tronic de­vices were found to be a fac­tor in a scant 0.1 per cent of pedes­trian fa­tal­i­ties.

There are other rea­sons to ques­tion the pro­posed law. Most pedes­trian ca­su­al­ties in Toronto are se­niors, not the de­mo­graphic known for In­sta­gram ob­ses­sions. And in a vast ma­jor­ity of cases, the vic­tim had the right of way. It seems pretty clear that dis­tracted driv­ing, not dis­tracted walk­ing, is the pri­mary cause for the re­cent rise in deaths. And where pedes­tri­ans are at fault, right-of-way laws al­ready ex­ist.

De­spite the re­dun­dancy of the bill and the mis­guided mes­sage of shared cul­pa­bil­ity that it sends, Toronto city coun­cil is en­thu­si­as­ti­cally on board. Last year, it passed a mo­tion ask­ing the province to pur­sue a ban on dis­tracted walk­ing.

At the time, the mo­tion’s au­thor, Coun­cil­lor Frances Nun­zi­ata, sug­gested that tex­ting be­hind the wheel and tex­ting while walk­ing through an in­ter­sec­tion are “the same.” Of course, she over­looked the rather ob­vi­ous fact that a driver op­er­ates a ma­chine ca­pa­ble of killing and maim­ing while the pedes­trian is op­er­at­ing, well, a pair of feet.

That’s not to say pedes­tri­ans shouldn’t pay at­ten­tion when they cross the street. Com­mon sense clearly de­mands that they do. But is the law re­ally the right tool for en­cour­ag­ing this sort of be­hav­iour? And would the con­sid­er­able en­force­ment costs yield the de­sired ben­e­fits?

The Wynne gov­ern­ment has shown an en­cour­ag­ing re­luc­tance to go down this path. Trans­porta­tion Min­is­ter Steven Del Duca quickly dis­missed the city’s re­quest last year to ban dis­tracted walk­ing. In­stead, his gov­ern­ment passed a bill that rightly fo­cused on the real prob­lem of dis­tracted driv­ing.

So far, Del Duca has hedged on whether he will sup­port the new bill, put for­ward by Lib­eral back­bencher Yvan Baker. The min­is­ter and his col­leagues should not. The law ex­ists largely to pro­tect oth­ers from the harm we do. We should make ex­cep­tions, such as with seat­belts and hel­mets, only when the ev­i­dence is suf­fi­ciently strong to over­come our ap­pro­pri­ate re­luc­tance to use the power of the law to pro­tect peo­ple from them­selves.

Dis­tracted walk­ers are an­noy­ing. Un­nec­es­sary laws are worse.

Where pedes­tri­ans are at fault, right-of-way laws al­ready ex­ist

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